In 1961, President John F. Kennedy invited Robert Frost to read at his inauguration, and since then, only three other presidents have included poets in their ceremonies. President Joe Biden picked Amanda Gorman, 22, for Wednesday’s program, making her the youngest inaugural poet in history. Gorman is also the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate of the United States, previously serving as the Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, where she was born and raised. She joins a short but distinct legacy of inaugural poets, which have included Maya Angelou (1993), Elizabeth Alexander (2009), and Richard Blanco (2013). Meeting the occasion with stanzas for an entire nation is a near-impossible challenge, even under less turbulent times. Gorman rose to the occasion of this most public poetic form, delivering an impressive poem titled “The Hill We Climb” with conviction and hope.
The poem’s titular and intentional “We” looks for light between “never-ending shade” and the “loss we carry,” quickly capturing the backdrop of pandemic and politics. Gorman’s “We” is “far from polished,” “diverse and beautiful,” and “seek[s] harm to none and harmony for all.” In one pointed moment, she states her “I,” where “a skinny black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.” Gorman’s “I” will continue to be heard in the forthcoming books Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem (illustrated by Loren Long) and poetry collection also titled The Hill We Climb. The titles have already topped bestseller lists less than one day after her televised address.
As she was writing the poem, Gorman looked to speeches by Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (both also conjured by Biden in his speech yesterday), also reflecting on the events of January 6, when violent white supremacists climbed and looted the same Capitol where she read. “I’m not going to in any way gloss over what we’ve seen over the past few weeks and, dare I say, the past few years,” Gorman told the New York Times.
“The Hill We Climb” contains these lucid lines: “We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation, rather than share it. / Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy. / And this effort very nearly succeeded.” The poem argues that democracy “can never be permanently defeated,” seeing this as “the era of just redemption,” although emphasizing its contingency on our collective bravery.
Another poem written for this moment is Jericho Brown’s “Inaugural,” which begins: “We were told that it is dangerous to touch / And yet we journeyed here, where what we believe / Meets what must be done.” Brown praised Gorman on Twitter, writing “Oh this is just lovely. Flow like water.” Indeed, the poem sonically soars, and Gorman often speaks about how her speech impediment, an experience shared by Biden and Angelou, has shaped both her sense of language and performance.
Gorman finds potential across time, writing that “while we have our eyes on the future / history has its eyes on us,” a wink to the musical Hamilton. On a day where many legacies are evoked, Gorman — who performed alongside Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez, with just as much confidence, if not more — was a welcome part of the image of diversity put forth by the new presidential administration. Of course, there are needed conversations about the limitations of representation and about the remaining challenges of the next four years , but Gorman — in golden afternoon light, adorned by a golden birdcage ring honoring Angelou and golden beads in braids — and her poetry shine with undeniable power.
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Read Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb,” transcribed below:
When day comes we ask ourselves:
Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry, a sea we must wade
We’ve braved the belly of the beast
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace
And the norms and notions of what “just is”
Isn’t always justice
And yet the dawn is ours
Before we knew it, somehow we do it
Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished
We, the successors of a country and a time
Where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves
and raised by a single mother
can dream of becoming president
only to find herself reciting for one
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
We are striving to forge our union with purpose
To compose a country committed
to all cultures, colors, characters, and conditions of man
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us
but what stands before us
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms to one another
We seek harm to none and harmony for all
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we hurt, we hoped
That even as we tired, we tried
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious
Not because we will never again know defeat
but because we will never again sow division
Scripture tells us to envision
that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
And no one shall make them afraid
If we’re to live up to our own time
then victory won’t lie in the blade
but in all the bridges we’ve made
That is the promise to glade
The hill we climb, if only we dare
It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into, and how we repair it
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy
And this effort very nearly succeeded
But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated
In this truth, in this faith we trust
For while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us
This is the era of just redemption
We feared at its inception
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour
but within it we found the power to author a new chapter
To offer hope and laughter to ourselves
So, while once we asked:
How could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?
Now we assert:
How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be
A country that is bruised but whole,
benevolent but bold,
fierce and free
We will not be turned around
or interrupted by intimidation
because we know our inaction and inertia
will be the inheritance of the next generation
Our blunders become their burdens
But one thing is certain:
If we merge mercy with might,
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy
and change our children’s birthright
So, let us leave behind a country
better than the one we were left with
Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest,
we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one
We will rise from the gold-limbed 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 sunbaked South
We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover
and every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful
When day comes, we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it
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