President Biden welcomed the youngest inaugural poet in history, 22-year-old Amanda Gorman, who earned widespread praise for her performance.
Gorman, a Black woman from California, received rave reviews from local literary voices as well as celebrities such as Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and “Hamilton” playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda — for the poem she read, “The Hill We Climb.”
“It was very exciting to see a young person, a young woman, a young Black woman reciting her inaugural poem,” said Yona Harvey, a nationally recognized poet and an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh Writing Program. “It seems perfect for this moment. I think we are looking to young people to direct us and give us their insight. It was a magnificent poem.”
Inviting poets to perform at the inauguration started with John F. Kennedy’s in 1961. The celebrated New England poet Robert Frost, then 86, read his “The Gift Outright.”
The practice went dormant until 1993, when Maya Angelou read at the first inauguration of President Clinton. Gorman’s performance was reminiscent of Angelou’s, Harvey said. Angelou read “On the Pulse of Morning,” which she composed for the occasion.
“I think to inspire people, but then to also be aware of the current political climate — I think they both did a great job in terms of balancing those two difficult things,” Harvey said.
During the ceremony, Gorman wore a caged bird ring — a gift from Oprah Winfrey — as a tribute to Angelou’s memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
“I feel like I did hear a little bit of Tracy K. Smith and Elizabeth Alexander, maybe in terms of scope,” Harvey said, referring to two highly lauded contemporary poets. “It’s hard to write a poem that lengthy that can hold people’s attention.”
While Gorman was inspired by her literary predecessors, she also is her own unique person, said Adriana Ramirez, a poet and author who wrote a book about Pittsburgh’s slam poetry history.
“There is certainly a literary lineage and a literary heritage there, and you cannot dismiss it,” Ramirez said. “But I would, at the same time, say what Ms. Gorman did is much more similar to a rock star. I think she is herself. I think she didn’t have to be anybody else. Her magic was her own.”
Ramirez highlighted Gorman’s performance ability, commending her “eloquence during an age that has been characterized by misinformation and doublespeak.”
“What interested me a lot was actually her performance and cadence,” Ramirez said. “It was written to sound like she was both talking to you, but also evoking the musicality of poetry.”
Inviting Gorman to perform as Kamala Harris was sworn in as the nation’s first Black female vice president was poignant, said Lesley Rains, manager of City of Asylum Bookstore in Pittsburgh’s North Side.
“They picked a young woman to speak for the moment,” Rains said. “It says so much, coupled with Kamala Harris and the change as we’re shifting from the last administration to this one. I don’t think I’ve even gotten my head around how important and iconic that moment is — and for it to be on the shoulders of this young Black woman.”
Having a young person of color serve as the inaugural poet “allowed us to imagine a future that was different from what we have collectively experienced in the recent past,” Ramirez said, adding that she plans to one day show her young children the clip as an inspirational lesson.
“To see a brown girl up there, as a woman of color, she represented a lot without needing to say a word about that,” Ramirez said.
Black female poets seem to be gaining more widespread recognition, said Harvey, whose wide range of work includes writing for Marvel Comics’ “Black Panther: World of Wakanda.” But it’s also important to recognize there is a long history of Black female poets in America, stretching back to Phillis Wheatley, an enslaved woman who penned poetry in the 18th century.
Selecting Gorman to recite her poetry at the inauguration was important in its own right — but Gorman’s message also was key.
“It’s just great to hear a poem that doesn’t shy away from the problems in the country,” Harvey said. “I think it tells us that you don’t have to hide the struggles of a country in order to be inspirational. The two are not exclusive, they’re not at odds with each other.”
With lines like “Even as we grieve, we grow,” Gorman touched on the challenges America is facing and offered hope.
“She had a huge task in front of her, to inspire such a divided nation,” said Sarah Moore, president of the Pittsburgh Poetry Collective. “She is providing us with words of comfort, but also words of inspiration.”
Gorman was “the star of the show” for Moore. “Amanda Gorman has a lot to say, and I’m so excited that her voice got to be heard.”
For Ramirez, a major part of that message was unity.
“I understand we’re divided, but we’re all united in our need for inspiration,” she said. “No matter where you are, you couldn’t help but be inspired, because that was real patriotism and joy and hope.”
Moore said she’s hopeful Gorman’s performance will not only uplift and unite a divided nation, but also serve as an inspiration for the poetry world.
“The opportunity for poets is changing,” she said. “When she is up there on stage, it’s showing people you don’t have to be a specific type of person to be a poet. You don’t have to be a professor to tell your story.”
Gorman’s first two books are slated to be released in September. One is a picture story titled “Change Things.” The other is a bound edition of her inaugural poem, along with other works.
“We have a great new voice in America,” Rains said.
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