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Poetry is Political: Amanda Gorman's America

National youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman arrives at the inauguration of US President-elect Joe Biden on the West Front of the US Capitol on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC.
National youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman arrives at the inauguration of US President-elect Joe Biden on the West Front of the US Capitol on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. | Win McNamee/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
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“I am the daughter of Black writers who are descended from freedom fighters, who broke their chains and changed the world. They call me,” so the mantra of Amanda Gorman goes. The 22-year-old Los Angeles native is the youngest inauguration poet in American history, officially writing her words "into tomorrow."

Watch Gorman read her inaugural poem, "The Hill We Climb."
Amanda Gorman reads inauguration poem, 'The Hill We Climb'

The Harvard graduate who studied sociology is self-assured and confident, belying the fact that as a young girl, she grappled with words and, in particular, with the letter R. This early challenge helped shape her experience of words, to understand their shape and power. “It’s made me the performer that I am and the storyteller that I strive to be. 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.” She told the Los Angeles Times.

Raised by a single mother, Joan Wicks, a middle school teacher in Watts, with two other siblings (including a twin sister), Gorman has had ample opportunity to see the spectrum of the quality of life from the window of her Los Angeles commute. She grew up near Westchester but spent her time around New Roads School in Santa Monica. Shuttling between the two neighborhoods allowed her to witness the socioeconomic divides in Los Angeles that are just a microcosm of the country’s issues. “I grew up at this incredibly odd intersection in Los Angeles, where it felt like the Black ’hood met Black elegance met white gentrification met Latin culture met wetlands. Traversing between these worlds, either to go to a private school in Malibu, or then come back home to my family’s two-bedroom apartment, gave me an appreciation for different cultures and realities, but also made me feel like an outsider,” said Gorman to the New York Times in 2018.

Amanda Gorman speaks on stage during Together Live at Town Hall on November 04, 2019 in New York City.
Amanda Gorman speaks on stage during Together Live at Town Hall on November 04, 2019 in New York City. | Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Together Live

Straddling these different worlds, Gorman also found her place in words, writing in her journal at the playground while other children caroused around her. She attempted to write her own dictionary at one point. She reads everything from books to cereal boxes three times, she told the New York Times: the first for fun, the second to learn something new to add to her craft, and finally, the third to improve that piece of writing.

All this was before high school when Gorman first started attending free poetry workshops at Beyond Baroque and nonprofit WriteGirl. She has only added firepower to her poetry since then, packing heavy, meaningful punches in every measured word and phrase, as she did in New York City when she she effortlessly switched from prose to poetry and back again during the course of a TED-Ed Student Talk. "All art is political." She said of her determination to continue writing, "The decision to create, the artistic choice to have a voice, the choice to be heard is the most political act of all."

She's performed at the Library of Congress, the Lincoln Center and the White House under former President Barack Obama, speaking about issues at the heart of the nation today. In 2014, she was the youth poet laureate of Los Angeles. Three years later, she was named the nation's first youth poet laureate. Her work is proudly political, tackling issues like racism, gender justice and immigration. She is the kind of poet unafraid to invoke:

the Protestant, the Muslim, the Jew,
the native, the immigrant,
the black, the brown, the blind, the brave,
the undocumented and undeterred,
the woman, the man, the nonbinary,
the white, the trans,
the ally to all of the above

"Poetry is actually at the center of our most political questions about what it means to be a democracy,” Gorman said. She pointed out that poetry can be found everywhere: from protest slogans (such as a sign that says, “They buried us, but they did not know we were seeds.”) to the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. (“We will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope) to the words at the foot of Lady Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”)

Listen to Gorman invoke a new day ahead in her reading of "The Miracle of Morning."
Amanda Gorman reads her poem, ‘The Miracle of Morning’

Gorman's writing shows an unabashed acknowledgment of the kind of messy democracy the United States has and the fraught history at the foundation of this nation. Yet, her work still rallies the nation to hope knowing that "democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be defeated," as she told the crowd during the 59th Presidential Inauguration.

Her presence on stage today reminds the world watching that:

There’s a poem in this place—
a poem in America
a poet in every American
who rewrites this nation, who tells
a story worthy of being told on this minnow of an earth
to breathe hope into a palimpsest of time—
a poet in every American
who sees that our poem penned
doesn’t mean our poem’s end.

There’s a place where this poem dwells—
it is here, it is now, in the yellow song of dawn’s bell
where we write an American lyric
we are just beginning to tell.

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