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'Even as we grieved, we grew'

Inaugural poet Amanda Gorman weaves joy and pain in ode to hope

With ‘The Hill We Climb,’ written to open Joe Biden’s presidency, 22-year-old poet references Biblical scripture and echoes Martin Luther King Jr.

American poet Amanda Gorman reads a poem during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the US Capitol in Washington, January 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)
American poet Amanda Gorman reads a poem during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the US Capitol in Washington, January 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)

NEW YORK — Inaugural poet Amanda Gorman 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., the 22-year-old 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.”

Read the full text of the poem here.

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 US 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 January 6 and the siege of the US 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 January 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.

Invited to the inaugural late last month by first lady Jill Biden, Gorman has read at official occasions before — including a July 4 celebration when she was backed by the Boston Pops Orchestra. 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.”

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