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People are still raving about the young poet laureate Amanda Gorman who delivered her poem The Hill We Climb at Joe Biden's Inauguration on Wednesday, January 20, 2021. The poem was fitting for the occasion as Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States and Kamala Harris was sworn in as the 49th Vice President of the United States.
Gorman said Dr. Jill Biden asked her in December 2020 to deliver a poem at the inauguration a month later. The only requirement she was given was to deliver a poem centered around the inauguration's theme "America United." Her poem was half-way completed when the Capitol building was stormed on January 6, 2021. Gorman said that's when her poem came to life, and she finished it that very night.
The poet received applause and praise on social media after she read her 723-word poem to millions in about five minutes. In her delivery, she mentioned the COVID-19 crisis and the insurrection at the Capitol.
Who Is Amanda Gorman?
Amanda Gorman and her twin sister, Gabrielle, are residents of Los Angeles, California. Gabrielle is an activist and filmmaker. They are daughters of Joan Wicks, a middle-school teacher and single mother.
Amanda is the youngest inaugural poet in the history of the United States. In 2017, when she was only 19 years old, she was named the national youth poet laureate by various arts programs, including the Academy of American Poets and the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.
Gorman is a sophomore sociology major at Harvard University. Like President Biden, she had a speech impediment as a child. Biden used to stutter, but Gorman had a problem pronouncing the letter "r" in words. With a lot of practice, they both overcame their impediment.
Even though she didn't even have a driver's license, she told The New York Times in 2017 that Americans could expect her on the ballot in 2036. Perhaps she can be her own poet laureate at her inauguration.
Poet Laureate Tradition
It is customary for an incoming president to have a poet laureate on the program for their inaugurations. Amanda Gorman is a member of a very small club. Before her, there were five other poets. However, Amanda is the youngest one with that honor.
According to Jen Benka, executive director of the Academy of American Poets, just four Democratic presidents have included a poetry reading at their inaugurations: Presidents Joe Biden, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and John F. Kennedy.
Benka said she's stunned by the response Gorman received after reciting her poem. She added that it’s the most attention a poet has received for their work. It is customary that after a poem is read at an inauguration, it is published in a book.
Gorman's poem will be published in her upcoming collection of poems the same day that her first children’s book, Change Sings: A Children Anthem, will be published. They both are set to be released in September 2021. Even though they have not been published yet, they have already become Amazon's bestsellers after people heard her at the inauguration.
The young poet laureate published her first poetry collection, The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough, in 2015.
Small Club of Poet Laureates
January 20, 2021
"The Hill We Climb"
Joseph R. Biden
January 20, 2013
Barack Obama (Second Inauguration)
January 20, 2009
"Praise Song for a New Day"
Barack Obama (First Inauguration)
January 20, 1997
"Of History and Hope"
Bill Clinton (Second Inauguration)
January 20, 1993
"On the Pulse of Morning"
Bill Clinton (First Inauguration)
January 20, 1961
"The Gift Outright"
John F. Kennedy
References to Other Works
Students, teachers, other poets, and historians will study Amanda Gorman's inaugural poem for years to come following her breathtaking performance. Here is some information to give them a head start.
The poet said when she was asked to read a poem, she did her homework by studying American literature and reviewed performances by other poet laureates. She spoke personally with two previous inaugural poets, Richard Blanco and Elizabeth Alexander.
Gorman paid homage and alluded to the works of great American writers and speakers like Maya Angelou, Martin Luther King, Jr. Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Winston Churchill, Barack Obama, William Faulkner, John Winthrop, and the Broadway musical Hamilton.
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1. Maya Angelou: Still I Rise
Maya Angelou's poem Still I Rise is about the poet overcoming prejudice as a Black woman. Angelou said: "We will rise through the golden hills of the West. We will rise from the windswept Northeast, where our forefathers first realized revolution. We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states. We will rise from the sun-baked South." Gorman said, "We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover."
2. Martin Luther King, Jr. - I Have a Dream Speech
Gorman referenced lines from Dr. King's famous I Have a Dream speech when she said: "We are striving to forge our union with purpose, to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters, and conditions of man."
3. Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address
In 1863, Lincoln inspired soldiers fighting the Civil War by saying, "It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced." Gorman said, "Somehow we do it, somehow we've weathered and witnessed a nation that isn't broken but simply unfinished."
4. Langston Hughes - Two references in a single line
In his poem, Still Here, Langston Hughes said, "I've been scared and battered. My hopes the wind done scattered." Gorman ends her poem by saying, "They'll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed — I, too, am America." Gorman also said: "In every known nook of our nation, in every corner called our country, our people, diverse and beautiful, will emerge battered and beautiful." The last three words pay homage to two iconic works of Langston Hughes: I, Too and Still Here.
5. George Washington's Biblical Phrase
George Washington used the biblical phrase "under their vine and fig tree" found in Micah 4:4 numerous times in his correspondence. Gorman references this verse when she said, "Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid."
6. Barack Obama's Campaign Slogan
Gorman reminded listeners of Barack Obama's 2008 campaign slogan and acceptance address line: "Change has come to America." She said, "If we merge mercy with might and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children's birthright."
7. Frederick Douglass' Famous Saying
Frederick Douglass said, "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men." Gorman said, "Being American is more than a pride we inherit, it's the past we step into and how we repair it."
8. William Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust
In Faulkner's 1948 book, Intruder in the Dust, he said, "Americans love nothing but their automobile, which they spend Sunday polishing and waxing and renews each year in pristine virginity." Gorman said, "And yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn't mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect."
9. John Winthrop's Sermon
Gorman's poem title, The Hill We Climb, was inspired by a phrase in John Winthrop's sermon when he gave a description of New England: a "city upon a hill" that would set an example for the rest of the world.
10. Hamilton: Song, History Has Its Eyes on You
Gorman said on Twitter she made references to the Tony Award-winning musical, Hamilton. "For while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us." It alludes to the song, History Has Its Eyes on You.
Reception to Amanda Gorman's Performance
Oprah Winfrey, Stacey Abrams, Hillary Clinton, Barack and Michelle Obama, and many others praised Gorman's poem. The poet's Twitter account gained nearly 100,000 followers 10 minutes after her performance. The Wall Street Journal reported that for a time Gorman was receiving more followers on Twitter at a faster rate than the new president.
Less than 24 hours after performing The Hill We Climb during the inauguration on January 20, 2021, the United States Youth Poet Laureate was on Good Morning America where she received a special message from Hamilton's creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. He told her, “The right words in the right order can change the world and you proved that yesterday with your brilliant piece. I can’t wait to see what you write next.”
Amanda was also interviewed on CNN by Anderson Cooper who became speechless because he was impressed by the young woman and her talent. Lester Holt of NBC's Nightly News also interviewed the poet laureate and was impressed.
Amanda's outfit was a gift from Oprah Winfrey which included a yellow Muccia Prada coat and a Prada red puff satin headband. Oprah also gave Amanda a ring to honor Maya Angelou. It was designed with a bird in a cage as a nod to Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Amanda also proudly showed off the earrings she was wearing that were also a gift from Oprah.
This was not the first time Oprah gave gifts to an inaugural poet laureate. In 1993, she gave her friend Maya Angelou a Chanel coat and a pair of gloves when she recited a poem at President Bill Clinton's inauguration. So, when Winfrey heard that Gorman would be the poet for Biden's inauguration, she was delighted to give the young poet gifts to continue the tradition.
Link to the Gorman's Entire Poem
- Read Full Transcript of Amanda Gorman's Inauguration Poem
Amanda Gorman, National Youth Poet Laureate and the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history, stole the show at Joe Biden's inauguration.
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