A new President of the United States has been inaugurated in a solemn yet celebratory ceremony studded with stars from show business as well as politics; attendees and participants nattily attired in designer fashions included former Presidents and First Ladies, Lady Gaga, and J-Lo, as well as the new office-holders being sworn in to their lofty positions. And the star of the day was — a 22-year-old poet who described herself as a skinny black girl raised by a single mother during her recitation of the poem she had written for the occasion.
Amanda Gorman’s poem epitomized the power of words to inspire healing and hope. Among the many accolades the young poet-laureate received was this one from Lin-Manuel Miranda, who famously displays his own laudatory skill with words in his musical Hamilton: “The right words in the right order can change the world.”
Amanda Gorman has since been propelled into the national spotlight, appearing on multiple TV shows where her star only continues to ascend as she eloquently explains her process and her purpose to the show’s hosts and the world. She acknowledges that she works in “words and text, not images,” that “words matter,” and that she hopes to “sanctify the power of words.”
The Harvard graduate who describes her young self as a “weird child” grew up with a speech impediment that made it difficult for her to pronounce certain letters, including the letter “r” which she only mastered about two years ago. However, she viewed that challenge as a gift and strength, explaining that “Since I was experiencing these obstacles in terms of my auditory and vocal skills, I became really good at reading and writing.” Her most recent triumph over the challenge came at the Inauguration,when she inspiringly intoned that nemesis letter an incredible number of times in the following passage:
“We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the west,
we will rise from the windswept northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the midwestern states,
we will rise from the sunbaked south
We will rebuild, reconcile and recover”
Amanda says that she did ask herself why she used so many “r’s” in this poem, when she had only recently trained herself to properly say “Gorman” and “poetry,” but decided that the repetition symbolized her own rising as well as her country’s.
Displaying amazing maturity and grace in multiple interviews, Amanda speaks of the research she always does before undertaking a project. For the inaugural poem, she looked at the words of Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and Martin Luther King, Jr., people who called for hope and unity during times of despair and division, studying how “rhetoric has been used for good.” She consulted with Elizabeth Alexander and Richard Blanco, previous inaugural poets, and acknowledged her kinship with Maya Angelou; long before reciting her poem at the inauguration of Bill Clinton, Angelou had been mute for five of her childhood years, dealing with a “type of imposed voicelessness” that somehow ultimately resulted in the powerful use of words to create meaningful literature. Amanda wore a ring honoring Angelou at the inauguration, a gift from Oprah Winfrey depicting a caged bird, a reference to the title of Angelou’s biography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
The inaugural poem entitled The Hill We Climb conjures an image of “our people diverse and beautiful” emerging to “step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid,” and then concludes
“The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
If only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
Amanda Gorman achieved her goal to unite the American people, if only in awe and wonder at her beautiful use of words. We can only echo the hope expressed by Lin-Manuel Miranda in his message to the dazzling new star, encouraging her to “Keep changing the world — one word at a time.”