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Photo: Amanda Gorman
Amanda Gorman–the Inauguration’s Bright Star
On Wednesday, January 20th, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn in as the 46th President and Vice President of the United States. Despite credible threats that some form of insurrection could derail the ceremony, the proceedings mostly went off without a hitch (one can imagine that some conservatives cheered when Garth Brooks carried on their COVID-era tradition of violating social distancing, germ-bombing former presidents in attendance with big hugs). Brooks, to his credit, delivered a moving rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’, while Lady Gaga, dressed like Elizabeth Banks’ ‘The Hunger Games’ character, performed the National Anthem. 90’s hitmakers New Radicals reunited for the first time in 22 years to play ‘You Get What You Give’, one of the late Beau Biden’s favorite songs. Memes were provided by Bernie Sanders, who dressed impressively warmly for the event, and by Tom Hanks, who did not seem to be dressed warmly enough.
Ultimately, no one stole the show like Amanda Gorman, the National Youth Poet Laureate who, at the age of 22, became the youngest Inaugural Poet in history. Gorman was ‘discovered’ at a reading at the Library of Congress by Dr. Jill Biden and hand-selected to compose and perform a piece for the inauguration. Gorman was by no means plucked from obscurity. In 2013, at the age of 15, Gorman was inspired by Pakistani Nobel Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai to become a youth delegate for the United Nations. She published her first collection of poetry, ‘The One for Whom Food is Not Enough’, in 2015.
When the Library of Congress created the National Youth Poet Laureate program, Gorman was the first to attain the honor, rising above a pool of over 35 applicants from around the country. In May 2020, Gorman appeared along with Oprah Winfrey on an episode of John Krasinski’s ‘Some Good News’, as part of a ceremony for graduates missing their commencement ceremonies due to COVID-19. In a virtual commencement speech, Gorman encouraged fellow graduates stating, “We are the good news that we’ve been looking for, demonstrating that every dusk holds a dawn disguised within it. Today, we don’t burst into a new world, we begin it.”
Following in Frost’s Footsteps
She certainly was the brightest beam of the dawn delivered with Biden’s inauguration. Visually, Gorman stood out. Against a sea of subdued January jackets, she wore an ebullient yellow Prada overcoat, a nod to the First Lady who had praised her for the bold color choice in the past. Her natural hair was in a twisted braid, held in place by a red satin headband. She wore gold and diamond hoop earrings, a cross-cultural symbol of power and liberation. On her finger, she wore a ring displaying a caged bird singing, a tribute to previous inaugural poet Maya Angelou.
It was a gift from Oprah, who also provided part of Angelou’s ensemble when she performed at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. The symbolism of having the youngest inaugural poet, herself possessing presidential aspirations, performing for our oldest president cannot be overstated. While many still wait with bated breath to see how President Biden will handle the historic challenges he has inherited, seeing him use his inauguration to provide a platform for an exciting voice from America’s youth is encouraging.
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To have an inaugural poet at all is by no means guaranteed. The tradition is actually particularly inconsistent, with Gorman becoming only the sixth inaugural poet since John F. Kennedy began the practice in 1961. She joins esteemed ranks. Kennedy’s inaugural poet was Robert Frost, who famously discarded his prepared verse for a memorized recitation of ‘The Gift Outright’ when the glare from the snow prevented him from reading. Frost’s message of ‘salvation in surrender’ mirrored Kennedy’s own inaugural charge for civic responsibility, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
Maya Angelou and Elizabeth Alexander
After Kennedy, the practice of pairing poetry with political ascension was lost for 32 years. Perhaps the lyricism of duty, the aspirational ‘Camelot’ statesmanship espoused by Kennedy, became dormant as his dream was deferred. It was resurrected with the inauguration of Bill Clinton, who requested a reading from Civil Rights activist Maya Angelou. In her poem ‘On the Pulse of Morning’ Angelou stated, “Your armed struggles for profit have left collars of waste upon my shore, currents of debris upon my breast. Yet today I call you to my riverside, if you will study war no more.” Clinton’s presidency would go on to oversee unprecedented cooperation between the US and its former Cold War adversary The Soviet Union toward nuclear deproliferation.
The tradition continued with President Obama. For his 2009 inauguration, he tapped poet Elizabeth Alexander, a fellow University of Chicago faculty member during Obama’s tenure there. Alexander also happened to be the daughter of Clifford Alexander, Jr., a former Secretary of the Army, and the sister of Mark C. Alexander, a senior adviser to Obama’s presidential campaign. Elizabeth Alexander’s path from a home of political power to poetry could be seen as the inverse of the path Amanda Gorman has set for herself; Gorman has frequently stated that she intends to run for president in 2036, the first year she will be eligible to do so. In her inaugural poem ‘Praise Song for the Day’, Alexander asked, “What if the mightiest word is love?” The Obama years saw the legalization of same-sex marriage, and Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to improve relations between peoples across the globe.
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A Fusion of Politics and Poetry
The inclusion of poetry readings in inaugural ceremonies is an acknowledgment of poetry’s power to encapsulate powerful ideas and transmit them into reality. Past presidents have tended to defer to greater wordsmiths when seeking to harness the alchemy of language to advance their ambitions, but if Amanda Gorman does proceed with her promise to run for the highest office, she could fuse the arts of poetry and politics. One is reminded of Václav Havel, the poet and playwright who was also a leader of Czechoslovakia’s peaceful Velvet Revolution against the Soviet Union. After that revolution successfully toppled Soviet power, Havel became president and ushered his country into an age of free elections that endures to this day.
Interestingly, American presidents from Washington to Lincoln to Obama have tried their hand at writing verse, but usually only as undergraduates or in their private correspondences. Satirists’ efforts to adapt Nixon’s Watergate tapes and Trump’s tweets into poetry don’t count, but Jimmy Carter’s published collection of poetry, ‘Always a Reckoning, and Other Poems’, certainly does. President Carter is no doubt an accomplished diplomat and is also a published novelist, but of his poems New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani stated they “plod from Point A to Point B without ever making a leap into emotional hyperspace.” Imagine if in Amanda Gorman we had a leader who did make that leap into emotional hyperspace? That could be revolutionary.
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A Revolutionary Vibe
Gorman’s performance at Biden’s inauguration certainly had a revolutionary vibe. Her poem, ‘The Hill We Climb’, was hopeful about the progress America has made while still acknowledging the hard work left to do. An unabashed fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ‘Hamilton’, Gorman nodded to the musical with the line, “For while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us.” Gorman, like Biden, had a speech impediment during childhood, but it seems to have only increased the verve and bravery with which she delivers her verse. She spoke of her own journey, comparing and contrasting herself to Biden with the line, “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.” She dismissed nationalism and echoed Biden’s calls for unity with the line, “It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit, it’s the past we step into, and how we repair it.”
She found inspiration for a new verse after witnessing the storming of the Capitol on January 6, adding, “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 deleted.” To all listening, Gorman concluded with the challenge, “For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.” Of Gorman’s political ambitions, Hillary Clinton tweeted, “She’s promised to run for president in 2036 and I for one just can’t wait.” Neither can I.
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