How a Youth Poet Laureate Became the Star of the Inauguration

At the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States, there were performances by stars like Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, and Garth Brooks, as well as a very meme-worthy Bernie Sanders moment. But in all the festivities, one name stood out the most. Amanda Gorman, the 22-year-old National Youth Poet Laureate, became the star of the show, delivering the message our entire country desperately needed to hear.

One of my favorite lines from her poem “The Hill We Climb” reads “and so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us but what stands before us. We close the divide because we know, to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.”

This poignant, beautifully crafted message of unity came at one of the most divided times we’ve experienced as a country. And it showed us once again why event professionals should consider choosing from AAEs extensive list of top poets for their next event. So, how did this extraordinary young lady end up on stage in front of the U.S. Capitol Building, broadcasting her vision to millions and millions of viewers all over the world?

Gorman— along with her twin sister— was born prematurely. In kindergarten, she was diagnosed with an auditory disorder that gave her a speech impediment. But she said she soon found her voice when, in third grade, a teacher introduced her to poetry. The late great Maya Angelou’s autobiography “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” inspired Gorman and reminded her of her own story, so naturally the legendary poet and civil rights icon became her role model.

And while poetry may have been Gorman’s first passion, she quickly realized that expression could be both poetic and political, devoting herself to the fight for social justice early on. At 16, she founded a non-profit called One Pen One Page that supports poetry workshops and youth advocacy leadership skills. Just a year later, she published her first poetry book entitled The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough.

That same year, Gorman headed to Harvard to study sociology. It was during her sophomore year at the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States that she was named America’s first national youth poet laureate. This honor meant that she was able to take her poetry on the road, performing at public events all across the country. It was at one of these events that a poem she wrote and performed, entitled “This Place (An American Lyric)” and written in response to the “Unite the Right” events in Charlottesville, caught the attention of Dr. Jill Biden.

Three years later, first lady-elect Biden would suggest Gorman for the honor of performing at the inauguration. Earlier this month, when the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol Building erupted, Gorman was about half way through writing “The Hill We Climb,” and she said she finished the rest of the poem just hours after the chaos subsided.

On January 20th, as Gorman stood at the podium reciting her poem— and subsequently going viral for all the right reasons— she wore a ring depicting a caged bird, a loving nod to her long time role model Angelou who stood in that same spot for the 1993 inauguration of Bill Clinton, as the first African American and first woman to receive the honor. In both reading “The Hill We Climb” and reading Gorman’s life story, we are left with the kind of hope that she concludes her poem with.

For there is always light,

if only we’re brave enough to see it

If only we’re brave enough to be it

Poets use their creative talents to blend poetry and politics in ways that both inspire and challenge. If you’d like to choose from a list of top poets for your next event, we’re here to make that happen. Visit our website to browse our extensive list of speakers and to contact our team.

Evan Owens: Evan is a communications manager for AAE. He writing about the latest trends of the entertainment industry and creating engaging, useful content for event planners. In his free time, he likes playing basketball, and spending time with his wife, son, and their two dogs.
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