Before she swept on to the world stage at Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony, Amanda Gorman seemed to have been leading the kind of lockdown life that many of us would recognize: long sessions of folding laundry alternated with binge-watching The Great British Bake Off. She would also escape outdoors to walk her miniature poodle.
Yet in the six minutes or thereabouts that it took her to recite her poem “The Hill We Climb,” the 22-year-old writer, who is America’s first youth poet laureate, became a global celebrity.
Much of the pre-ceremony speculation had centered on whether Lady Gaga would be able to hit all the notes in the national anthem or what songs Jennifer Lopez would unleash in her segment.
In the event both divas were upstaged by Gorman’s self-assured display. It was one of those exceedingly rare moments in our cultural life when poetry took priority over pop. On the morning after, lots of us were still scanning the lines for symbolism and hip-hop-inspired rhymes.
To some admirers it was a moment that marked the arrival of a bold new voice in American literature. Even if, as some sceptics argued, the poem often felt like a worthy but long-winded homage to Maya Angelou (who had recited one of her own works at the inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1993), there was no denying the visual impression that Gorman made. Impeccably dressed in a Prada coat and headband, her hair intricately braided, her hands cutting graceful arcs through the chill January air, she exuded the confidence and charisma of a born performer. As with many a classic pop anthem, “The Hill We Climb” loses some of its allure when it is set down on paper, but Gorman made the words soar.
It was one of those exceedingly rare moments in our cultural life when poetry took priority over pop.
Much like the country star Garth Brooks quietly singing “Amazing Grace”— a hymn that Aretha Franklin made her own — Gorman’s appearance was a symbol of America’s multicultural past and present. A Harvard graduate, she belongs to that activist generation that have served as shock troops in the culture wars. Before speaking in public she recites a mantra to herself, usually out loud: “I am the daughter of black writers. We’re descended from freedom fighters who broke our chains and changed the world. They call me.” When she describes herself as “a young black woman navigating the intersectionality of my identity”, Gorman is using the jargon of the campus warrior. Will it drown out the human voice of the poet? Let’s hope not.
Brought up by a single mother in Los Angeles, Gorman and her twin sister were privately educated in Santa Monica, at a school where, it is said, the pursuit of grades was regarded as less important than encouraging self-expression. (The institution’s website takes pride in promoting diversity and “raising generations of powerfully compassionate advocates … ultimately empowering them to disrupt systems that produce inequality and build a more just future”.)
Gorman’s mother was a teacher at an inner-city school in Watts (the scene of riots in 1965 sparked by police brutality) and also studied for a doctorate and master’s degrees in education. At home expectations were high. Gorman has recalled that “if I wanted to watch regular TV, I’d have to make a social justice argument as to why”. Her mother’s life lessons also included reading her daughters their “Miranda” rights — the set speech US police officers have to recite when making arrests.
“If I wanted to watch regular TV, I’d have to make a social justice argument as to why.”
Gorman’s passion for literature was ignited by encountering Ray Bradbury’s novel Dandelion Wine in third grade (year four in the UK; she would have been eight or nine years old). She has described herself as something of a “freak” in her younger years. That sense of being set apart from others was compounded by a speech impediment that took years of treatment to overcome. (Biden, as we know, suffered from a similar problem: in his youth he had a stammer that he conquered, in part, by reciting poetry to control the movements of his face.)
It is hard to believe that, even a couple of years ago, the young woman who displayed so much poise in front of a worldwide audience once struggled to get the words out. She still describes pronouncing the letter “r” as the bane of her life. On the other hand, the ordeal taught her to value the importance of words as tools. As she once put it: “When you have to teach yourself how to say sounds, when you have to be highly concerned about pronunciation, it gives you a certain awareness of sonics, of the auditory experience.”
Although she was at first drawn to writing short stories, Gorman soon began to concentrate on poetry. And inspired in part by the Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, she grew more interested in social activism. By 2014 — the year she launched One Pen One Page, a non-profit youth literacy program — she became Los Angeles’s youth poet laureate, and in 2017, while studying sociology at Harvard, was named as America’s first national youth poet laureate. Before this week’s media storm, she had already signed a two-book deal with the children’s division of Viking Books. Oprah Winfrey, no less, gave her jewelery to wear on Capitol Hill. Now the next chapter in the journey beckons.
Clive Davis is the chief theater critic for The Times of London