As incoming President Joe Biden prepared to take the oath of office in a city still reeling from the January 6 attack on the Capitol, 22-year-old poet Amanda Gorman was charged with capturing the spirit of the moment.
This afternoon, with her reading of an original composition titled “The Hill We Climb,” she did just that—and, in doing so, became the youngest inaugural poet in United States history.
“What I really aspire to do in the poem is to be able to use my words to envision a way in which our country can still come together and can still heal,” she told the New York Times’ Alexandra Alter ahead of the ceremony. “It’s doing that in a way that is not erasing or neglecting the harsh truths I think America needs to reconcile with.”
Growing up in Los Angeles, where her mother teaches middle school, Gorman began writing poetry as a child. At 16, she served as a youth delegate for the United Nations. Soon after that, she became the Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles and published her first collection, The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough. In 2017, while studying sociology at Harvard University, she was named the country’s first National Youth Poet Laureate.
Only three previous presidents have had a poet recite work at their inaugurations, per Poets.org. The first was John F. Kennedy, who recruited Robert Frost to speak at his ceremony in 1961. Bill Clinton invited Maya Angelou to perform when he first took office in 1993 and tapped Miller Williams to perform at his second inauguration in 1997. Barack Obama invited Elizabeth Alexander in 2009 and Richard Blanco in 2013.
As Jason Breslow reports for NPR, Gorman, like Biden himself, had a speech impediment as a child, which she says made her “self-edit and self-police.” Some words, particularly those with an “r” sound, were hard for her. That made performing publicly a challenge when she first started out.
“I would be in the bathroom scribbling five minutes before trying to figure out if I could say ‘Earth’ or if I can say ‘girl’ or if I can say ‘poetry,’” she tells NPR.
Gorman overcame those challenges to speak at a number of significant occasions. She’s recited her poems at the Library of Congress and on the observation deck of the Empire State Building. In fact, she tells the Los Angeles Times’ Julia Barajas, she believes her difficulties with speech helped her.
“I don’t look at my disability as a weakness,” Gorman says. “It’s made me the performer that I am and the storyteller that I strive to be. When you have to teach yourself how to say sounds, when you have to be highly concerned about pronunciation, it gives you a certain awareness of sonics, of the auditory experience.”
First Lady Jill Biden, a fan of Gorman’s work, convinced the inaugural committee to invite her to recite a poem at the ceremony, according to the Los Angeles Times. When she got the invitation, Gorman tells NPR, she started reading works by previous inaugural poets, as well as famed orators from Abraham Lincoln to Frederick Douglass and Winston Churchill.
Gorman tells the New York Times that she was about halfway through writing the poem when pro-Trump rioters stormed Congress. In response to the riots, she added several new lines to “The Hill We Climb.”
One reads, “But while democracy can be periodically delayed / It can never be permanently defeated.”
Gorman took care not to portray the events of January 6 as an aberration in the nation’s history.
“America is messy,” she tells the Los Angeles Times. “It’s still in its early development of all that we can become.”
“There’s no denying that a victory for her is a victory for all of us who would like to see ourselves represented as women of color in office,” she tells the Los Angeles Times. “It makes it more imaginable.”
Gorman personally has little trouble imagining a future for herself in politics. She says she plans to run for president the moment she’s old enough, in 2036.