Youngest inaugural poet in history ushers in an era of hope

Amanda Gorman, 22, captured hearts with her inauguration poem “The Hill We Climb.” GRAPHIC BY HALEY KEIZUR/FOGHORN

Zoe Binder

Staff Writer

Amanda Gorman spoke to the hearts and minds of Americans and the rest of the world at the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris Jan. 20. Taking the stage in front of the United States Capitol and 34 million viewers at just 22 years old, Gorman became the youngest inaugural poet in history. Her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” talked about braving the darkness of the last four years and transitioning into a time when democracy is again an attainable goal.

Sophomore politics and sociology double major Elina Lingappa is a poet who found immense significance in Gorman’s work. “Seeing a 22-year-old person of color from Los Angeles. standing in front of Mike Pence and Mitch McConnel in that vibrant yellow coat, it was like she literally embodied the light that is emerging with this new administration,” she said. “I think [Gorman is] brave. Being able to speak about all the darkness of the last four years, acknowledge the horrors in the history of this country, and still see the hope that lies ahead, isn’t easy.”

Gorman is a recent Harvard graduate who grew up writing poetry in Los Angeles. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Gorman spoke about how her mother helped her understand the power of words. “Having a mom who is a teacher had a huge impact on me,” she said. When she was only 16, Gorman became Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, and later became the first National Youth Poet Laureate during her time at Harvard. The Poet Laureate programs work to give young activist poets a platform to inspire change.

In the months leading up to the event, first lady Jill Biden heard Gorman read at the Library of Congress and advocated for her to recite a piece at the inauguration. The inaugural committee approved the idea in late December, and Gorman spent the next month writing her poem. She continued to write and revise “The Hill We Climb” until just days before the inauguration, adding allusions to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. In her interview with the LA Times Gorman said, “America is messy. It’s still in its early development of all that we can become. And I have to recognize that in the poem.”

To inspire her writing, Gorman listened to period piece soundtracks such as those of “Hamilton,” “The Crown,” and “Lincoln,” and researched speeches by the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln. As a child, Gorman had a stutter (as did Joe Biden, famously) and struggled to pronounce certain letters. In an interview with The New York Times, Gorman spoke about her intense preparation process before the inauguration: “The writing process is its own excruciating form, but as someone with a speech impediment, speaking in front of millions of people presents its own type of terror.” According to the New York Times, Gorman practiced reciting the poem tirelessly until she felt confident in every word. 

After the inauguration, “The Hill We Climb” became a trending topic and Gorman was thrust into the international spotlight. As a result, Gorman was asked to perform at this year’s Super Bowl preshow. To sophomore finance major DJ Singleton, a poet himself, Gorman’s poem spoke to more than just democracy. “The poem symbolizes some of the hills she has to climb as a Black woman, but also the challenges we have to overcome as a country.” He also said the image of Gorman speaking in front of the U.S. capitol was powerful since “[it’s] a place where the Black woman’s voice and best interests are not given much consideration.” 

USF poetry professor Bruce Snider also offered his thoughts on Gorman’s performance. “Amanda Gorman is obviously a remarkable young individual talent, but she’s also an example of the enormous talent I’ve seen from other young people of her generation, including my own amazing students here at USF,” said Snider, who is also the chair of the English department. “In these difficult times, it’s consoling and inspiring to be reminded of her generation’s remarkable promise, which, of course, is the promise of our shared future.”

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