National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman rose to the occasion in her Inauguration Day poem “The Hill We Climb,” offering words of hope that sought to fortify and unite a nation that has been divided by political contention and a worldwide pandemic over the past year.
Gorman, a recent Harvard graduate, is the youngest inaugural poet in the United States, performing at just 22 years old. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Gorman became the Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles before eventually being named the National Youth Poet Laureate while at Harvard. She published her first book of poetry titled “One For Whom Food Is Not Enough” in 2015 at the age of 17.
Although Gorman performed her poem in Washington, D.C., over 2,000 miles away from Salt Lake City, the poem hit close to home for many students and faculty at Westminster College.
“I thought Gorman’s choice of a poem suited for oral recitation was excellent,” said English professor Natasha Saje in an email. “I’m glad President Biden chose someone trained in performance and someone so young.”
Renowned poets such as Miriam Bird Greenberg, Westminster’s visiting poet for the Spring semester, saw Gorman’s work as a preview of what American life could be.
“For me, Gorman and her work are a glimpse of utopia,” Greenberg said. “Not in a ‘more perfect union,’ but in one we can briefly find unity in the repair of.”
In the poem, Gorman discussed her background as a “skinny Black girl” who was raised by a single mother and as a descendant of slaves. She described the flaws that the United States still needs to address but that have the potential to change:
We are striving to forge a union with purpose,
to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and
conditions of man.
“It’s powerfully important for young people, for people of color, for people with disabilities, and for so many others to see their lives on stage like this,” Greenberg said.
Later on in the poem, Gorman addressed the Capitol siege that took place on Jan. 6:
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.
“Part of the power of this poem is that it doesn’t shy away from acknowledging some of the ugly truths about our country,” said Catherine Cates, a research assistant in the English department. “Her poem reminded me that creative forces can sometimes be more powerful than physical forces.”
Westminster student Dylan Richmond felt differently about Gorman’s words.
“Gorman […] implies that the siege on the Capitol is a periodical delay rather than a permanent defeat of democracy,” Richmond said. “However, I and many others saw the siege as a fulfillment of America rather than an attempt to destroy it.”
Despite its controversy, Gorman’s poem places her in an elite group of poets who have been selected to perform at Inauguration Day celebrations, including Robert Frost and Maya Angelou, whom Gorman states have been a source of inspiration for her own work.
“Now more than ever, the United States needs an inaugural poem,” Gorman said in an interview with the New York Times. “Poetry is typically the touchstone that we go back to when we have to remind ourselves of the history that we stand on, and the future that we stand for.”
Westminster students and faculty agreed that Gorman’s words have the potential to reach far and wide in years to come.
“I suspect we’ll see ripples of Gorman’s work in civic life for decades,” Greenberg said.
Student poets like Richmond said they see Gorman’s poem as a symbol of promises to be kept by the new Biden administration.
“I’m sure her poem will be viewed as part and parcel of Biden’s larger promise to rebuild and repair after the Trump administration,” Richmond said.
The inauguration isn’t the last place America will hear from Amanda Gorman. She is slated to perform again at this year’s Super Bowl, which is predicted to reach over 99 million people — three times as many viewers as this year’s inauguration.