WASHINGTON (CBS/AP) -- The nation's first-ever youth poet laureate became the youngest known inaugural poet when she spoke at President Joe Biden's inauguration on Wednesday. Amanda Gorman is a 22-year-old who grew up in Los Angeles but has Boston connections.
Gorman graduated from Harvard University and in 2019 performed an Independence Day poem with the Boston Pops to mark the Fourth of July on the Esplanade.
She summoned images dire and triumphant Wednesday as she called out to the world "even as we grieved, we grew."
In language referencing Biblical scripture and at times echoing the oratory of John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Gorman read with urgency and assertion as she began by asking "Where can we find light/In this never-ending shade?" and used her own poetry and life story as an answer. The poem's very title, "The Hill We Climb," suggested both labor and transcendence.
"We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
Of such a terrifying hour.
But within it we've found the power
To author a new chapter,
To offer hope and laughter to ourselves."
It was an extraordinary task for Gorman, the youngest by far of the poets who have read at presidential inaugurations since Kennedy invited Robert Frost in 1961, with other predecessors including Maya Angelou and Elizabeth Alexander. A native and resident of Los Angeles and the country's first National Youth Poet Laureate, Gorman told The Associated Press last week that she planned to combine a message of hope for President Joseph Biden's inaugural without ignoring "the evidence of discord and division." She had completed a little more than half of "The Hill We Climb" before Jan. 6 and the siege of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump,
"That day gave me a second wave of energy to finish the poem," Gorman told the AP. She had said that she would not mention Jan. 6 specifically, but her reference was unmistakable:
"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."
Frost's appearance at the Kennedy inaugural was a kind of valedictory — he was 86 and died two years later. Gorman's career is just beginning. Her first two books come out later this year — the picture story "Change Things" and a bound edition of her inaugural poem. Ceremonial works are often quickly forgotten, but Angelou's "On the Pulse Of the Morning," which she read at the 1993 inaugural of President Clinton, went on to sell more than 1 million copies as a book.
Gorman was Invited to the inaugural late last month by first lady Jill Biden. She has also made clear her desire to appear at a future inaugural, in a much greater capacity, an ambition she stated firmly in her poem.
"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."
(© Copyright 2021 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. Associated Press writer Hillel Italie contributed to this report.)
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