Inauguration poet’s powerful prose, presence captivate millions

Poet Amanda Gorman delivered her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” during the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden on Jan. 20. Photo: The Associated Press
By Janette Neuwahl Tannen

Poet Amanda Gorman delivered her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” during the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden on Jan. 20. Photo: The Associated Press

Inauguration poet’s powerful prose, presence captivate millions

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen
University writing experts weigh in on the inaugural poem, written and recited by Amanda Gorman, a 22-year-old U.S. youth poet laureate.

It was inevitable that Inauguration Day would be momentous. It was occurring during a pandemic; the first female, Black, and South Asian vice president was being sworn in; and the event was happening after a tumultuous election and a dangerous attack on the U.S. Capitol.

But there were some unexpected high notes for viewers on Jan. 20.

Chief among them was 22-year-old poet, Amanda Gorman, whose presentation of her own work, “The Hill We Climb,” captivated the attention of millions. Gorman’s confident oration of the poem she crafted in the wake of national violence moved so many that she has skyrocketed to fame, prompting numerous of Google searches and social media followers.

Gorman, who was named the first U.S. national youth poet laureate in 2017 and has two books set to be published in the fall, now has 1.4 million people following her on Twitter, and 2.9 million on Instagram. On Inauguration Day, former president Barack Obama quoted her poem in a Tweet praising Gorman’s writing. Former first lady and secretary of state Hillary Clinton tweeted a photo with Gorman on the Capitol steps and pledged her support to the poet should she run for president in 2036. Oprah Winfrey said Gorman’s poem would have made former inaugural poet Maya Angelou proud. And Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the multiple Tony Award-winning musical “Hamilton” in verse, said that Gorman “smashed it.”  

Professors in the University of Miami’s creative writing program are just as enthusiastic about Gorman’s poem and her delivery.

Chantel Acevedo

Chantel Acevedo, an author and English professor, said she was extremely impressed at the caliber of poem Gorman was able to create in such a short time. (She was notified only about a month beforehand.) Acevedo said that writing an occasional poem, which is exactly what Gorman was tasked with for the 2021 Inauguration, is often daunting because it must set the tone for the event.

“There’s no bigger moment in our country than an inauguration and peaceful transition of power. It’s a defining moment. And she did a great job with it,” said Acevedo, who also directs the creative writing program and has written five books, as well as one set for publication in July. “It was the perfect poem.”

Maureen Seaton, a poet and professor in the creative writing program, agreed wholeheartedly, and said that Gorman’s piece was one of the best inaugural poems she has ever read. But it was elevated by the young woman’s energetic recitation, which stirred her to tears.

Often, Seaton tells her students that the poet Emily Dickinson once wrote that if a poem is good it will “blow off the top of your head.” Seaton has adapted that saying by telling students that if a poem is good, it will fill your mouth with flowers. The professor said that she listened to Gorman read the poem and then read it herself. “It was spectacular. It filled my mouth with flowers,” Seaton declared.

Maureen Seaton

“It was also gorgeous politically,” added Seaton, an author of six books of poems and one memoir, with another collection of poetry awaiting publication. “She covered what we did wrong [as a nation], how to fix it, and she brought it from political to personal. I can’t imagine being able to do it better than she could.”

Acevedo also praised Gorman’s message, which spoke to the fragility of our nation’s democracy. Both instructors said it was a relevant theme for the poem, which Gorman updated after angry domestic extremists stormed and vandalized the halls of Congress.

“She is so young and was able to capture hope in our democracy, but also was able to put forth the idea that democracy will be aspirational and our country must always be working to perfect it,” Acevedo said. “I thought that she captured that beautifully.”

Many writers and poets were struck by Gorman’s age because her command of language and poetry was so complex. Seaton said she will likely use Gorman’s poem as an example in her classes because of the many poetic devices she employed and the rhythm and rhyme she was able to utilize, while also conveying a powerful message. For example, according to Seaton, Gorman used a device called “enjambment,” where the poet moves on to the next line in the middle of a thought, often to keep the rhythm of the piece. She also included some allusions to the musical “Hamilton.”

“If you combine poetic language and rhyme, and then if you add how she managed to bring us through the dark and into the light, it was brilliant,” Seaton pointed out.

Yet, there was plenty of symbolism on stage at the inauguration, and President Joe Biden’s decision to include a young poet was likely intentional, Acevedo said.

“It was bound up in the idea of hope and renewal and in trusting the young people to help set the course and right the ship,” she added. “It was also a call to action for young people that just because you’re young doesn’t mean that you don’t matter or that you can’t make a difference.”

Now, Acevedo hopes that the enthusiasm Gorman received will also affirm the importance of the arts in U.S. society.

“The fact that people sat and watched our inauguration and the thing that broke the internet was the poem—it’s a reminder to our government that has in the past put organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts on the chopping block, and it’s a message to publishers and universities that poetry matters and that it’s important to support the arts,” she said. “Because look at what she was able to do with one poem.”