Words that matter: Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem

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Amanda Gorman is a poet and activist. Gorman is the youngest inaugural poet ever and recited at President Biden’s inauguration.

On Jan 20., Amanda Gorman, the youngest poet ever to perform at a presidential inauguration, made history with her poem titled The Hill We Climb. 

The poem was completed the night after the capitol hill riot. With this in mind, Gorman added several lines, including one about “a force that would rather shatter our nation than share it.” 

Gorman’s words resonated with many, both at the inauguration and at home watching, with a form of patriotism that has seemed to disappear from the zeitgeist in which one can both love and criticize their country without contradiction, in which “Being American is more than a pride we inherit, it’s the past we step into and how we repair it.” 

Gorman has a history of navigating this dichotomy between her country and its history. In a speech she gave to the Academy of Arts and Sciences in March of 2020, Gorman discussed being commissioned to do a poem for CBS for the Fourth of July and the anxiety she felt about commemorating men like Thomas Jefferson, who did not even believe black people were capable of poetry, in her poem. 

She discussed how she gave herself parameters, saying she wanted to recognize “the gaps left in the work by our founding fathers…and I would take that as my own duty and responsibility to pay that forward, to continue the mission.” In this interview she says the phrase she would later echo in The Hill We Climbof a nation not “broken but simply unfinished.” 

This understanding of history as the story of all people, not just the people who were in power at the time, is even present in her personal mantra, which she says to herself before every performance: “I am the daughter of black writers. We are descended from freedom fighters who broke their chains and changed the world, they call me.”

To Gorman, poetry is the perfect art form to communicate this political message. 

“Poetry has never been the language of barriers. It has always been the language of bridges.It is this connection-making that makes poetry powerful, but also makes it political,” she said in a 2019 TED talk. “Poetry is always at the pulse of the most dangerous and the most daring questions that a nation might face.” 

In an interview with CNN shortly after the inauguration, Gorman described the way in which words had been used to manipulate people these past few years and how one of her goals with the poem was to “reclaim poetry as that site which can repurify and sanctify not only the capitol building, which we saw violated, but the power of words.”

In that same interview, she said, “Hope isn’t something we ask of others. It’s something we have to demand from ourselves.” 

At the beginning of her poem, Gorman describes America as asking “where can we find light in this never ending shade,” and her last line answers the question: “There is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.”