Obama-endorsed and wearing gold-clipped braids and Oprah-gifted earrings, 22-year old poet Amanada Gorman and her poem The Hill We Climb have been the talking point of Biden’s inauguration. Her five-minute poem, which started with the question “When day comes we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?”, explored grief, redemption and recovery, and wowed the world. Imperfect but fervent, it reminded us of something important: politics needs poetry.
Gorman, born in 1998 in Los Angeles and raised by a mother who works as a teacher, graduated from Harvard university in 2020. She was the first US national youth poet laureate and its youngest ever inaugural poet. Owing to a speech impediment, she couldn’t pronounce the letter R until two years ago. She has described spoken word as “my own type of pathology”. Praise has overflowed for the young poet and many have celebrated her passion, beauty and poise in this historic moment that closes the door on Trump. “I honor you, @TheAmandaGorman. Thank you,” wrote the daughter of Dr Martin Luther King Junior, Bernice King on Twitter.
The clips circulating on the internet of Gorman, glowing and optimistic, stand in utter contrast to scenes of Trump supporters storming the Capitol, grotesque and desperate. She wrote the remainder of the piece after the events of 6 January , staying up late to watch the storming the Capitol. The line: “We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it” speaks directly to the attempted derailment of democracy.
On Instagram, Gorman describes herself as a dreamer, and the line: “Our people diverse and beautiful will emerge, battered and beautiful” shows her faith – a young woman dreaming aloud before millions of people in the form of spoken word. The moment has gone viral. Spoken word is a craft and a powerful art form, from the cadence to the delivery, to the subtle choreography.
The moment, as internationally syndicated as it was, belongs to America. I don’t necessarily desire to see a version of it reproduced should Keir Starmer ever be elected prime minister (nor for the poet to find inspiration in Winston Churchill speeches).
American politics’ relationship to poetry has a deep legacy in its fight for justice. In 1861, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a poet and lecturer, wrote To the Union Savers of Cleveland, a poem about Sara Lucy Bagby, a woman who had escaped enslavement and was arrested and returned to her “owner” under the Fugitive Slave Act. Harper published the poem in abolitionist newspaper The Anti-Slavery Bugle, and addressed it fervently to the white people of Ohio, writing “And your guilty, sin-cursed Union/ Shall be shaken to its base/ Till ye learn that simple justice/ Is the right of every race.” Poetry has long been the platform for opposing the current condition. As Matt Sandler writes in The Black Romantic Revolution: “Harper and her contemporaries borrowed and transformed the techniques and theories of Romanticism in an effort to bring about the end of slavery.”
Poets are vendors of aspiration and are always fashioning together depictions of a better tomorrow, but it’s fair to ask if they are ever truly listened to in political spaces.
Maya Angelou read her poem On the Pulse of Morning in 1993, at the inauguration of Bill Clinton. She says: “Lift up your hearts/ Each new hour holds new chances/ For a new beginning./ Do not be wedded forever/ To fear, yoked eternally/ To brutishness./ The horizon leans forward,/ Offering you space to place new steps of change.” Clinton would later go on to instigate the war on drugs and enact the 1994 Crime Bill that would destroy many lives and accelerate the incarceration of African Americans.
I have wished many times to see more poets in positions of power, though writing poetry hasn’t made presidents any less barbaric or kinder – as one might think a writer of similes would be. Obama published poems at 19 in a literary review, published in 1982 by Occidental College. Jimmy Carter was the first US president to write a book of poetry, Always a Reckoning, and Other Poems, in 1995. Neither of these men has clean hands.
For now, it’s paramount that young poets be given the space, funding and opportunities to be the voices of their communities. They are often spokespeople for those who look and live like them. Don’t wait until a black poet is on the world stage to be inspired by them – often they are not invited, and often they don’t want to endorse state activities by engaging in such ceremonies.
Those poems, performed on neighbourhood stages, sitting in anthologies and self-published books, showcased at slams and open mics, have the answers too. There are many young poets like Gorman, who have glistening ideas for tomorrow and deserve to be recognised and propelled into superstardom, or at least just read. Buy their books too.