YouTube video

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. 

* * *

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

danilo machado is a poet, curator, and critic on occupied land interested in art and language’s potential for revealing tenderness, erasure, and relationships...