Poet Laureate Lights Up Inauguration

Democracy Examined

On January 20th, Amanda Gorman became the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history when she delivered her original poem: “The Hill We Climb.” Gorman, raised by a single mother in Los Angeles, is a recent graduate of Harvard University who overcame a severe speech impediment as a child to become the first U.S. National Youth Poet Laureate. Rather than simply focusing on the serious challenges facing America (the “never-ending shade,” in her words), Gorman shed light on the power we now have to seize the “dawn” before us and to rejuvenate our democracy. 

1. What made her poem different? 

“The Hill We Climb” did not take on the traditional form of written poetry; instead, Gorman utilized the spoken-word style, gesturing expressively with every verse she shared. And by emphasizing the rhythms, rhymes, and intonations of each phrase, Gorman transformed her poem into a form of music. Importantly, the language Gorman used was not overly elaborate or complex—instead, she spoke simply, but with power and purpose, ensuring that her words remained accessible to every member of her audience.  

Furthermore, although Gorman’s poem did not hide from America’s challenges, she couched her constructive criticism in a message of hope and the potential for positive change. Democracy, Gorman argued, is a process—one that has the flexibility to self-correct and adapt. As she says, while it can be “periodically delayed / it can never be permanently defeated.” Our nation is not “broken / but simply unfinished.” Indeed, America’s great experiment continues.

2. What is the history of poet laureates at inaugurations?

Poetry has only recently become a traditional part of the presidential inauguration ceremony. Only four presidents—John F. Kennedy in 1961, Bill Clinton in 1993 and 1997, Barack Obama in 2009 and 2013, and Joe Biden in 2021—have invited poets to compose work for their respective ceremonies. Amanda Gorman takes her place in history alongside the likes of Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Miller Williams, Elizabeth Alexander, and Richard Blanco, speaking words that will echo through the minds of Americans for years to come.