With apologies to Reverend Silvester Beaman, there was simply no following Amanda Gorman. The doctor from Delaware’s benediction was rousing and passionate, evoking plenty of other moving moments during Wednesday’s (thankfully) peaceful inauguration ceremony. But Gorman’s beautifully crafted words were a showstopper. That they didn’t, in fact, end the ceremony is a fact likely to be lost to time. Gorman’s poem, “The Hill We Climb,” grabbed hold of viewers from the jump (“Mr. President, Doctor Biden…”) and has yet to let go.
That’s very much by design. Inaugural poets are not a requisite of the ceremony. Including Gorman, only six such wordsmiths have read during U.S. Presidential Inaugurations, and only four presidents have heard them. (President Obama and President Clinton had different poets at each of their ceremonies, while John F. Kennedy was the first to invite a poet, Robert Frost, to share words.)
President Joe Biden’s ceremony mirrored Obama’s in many ways when it came to incorporating the poet laureate. In 2009, Poet Elizabeth Alexander read “Praise Song for the Day” right after Obama’s inaugural address, and she was followed by a benediction from civil rights activist Joseph Lowery. Obama went a bit bigger in 2013, adding Kelly Clarkson’s performance of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” after his speech and ending with Beyoncé singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” after Rev. Luis Leon gave the benediction.
But his last inaugural poet was groundbreaking. Richard Blanco, who read “One Today,” was the first immigrant to serve as the inaugural poet. He was also the first openly gay poet at the ceremony, as well as the first Latino. At the time, he was also the youngest to fill the role, until Wednesday, when 22-year-old Amanda Gorman set a new record by more than two decades.
Almost as soon as she started speaking, Gorman’s story spread. Raised by a middle school teacher, she became the Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles at 16. She then went to Harvard and was named the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate before graduating last year. For her inaugural poem, she tried to take it slowly, before writing the last half in one night: January 6, after witnessing the Capitol attacks.
“Yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect. We are striving to forge a union with purpose,” she said, early in the speech, her golden coat and beads shining in the midday sun. “Even as we grieved, we grew; that even as we hurt, we hoped; that even as we tired, we tried; that we will forever be tied together, victorious — not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.”
Considering Biden’s accepted mandate to unify the country, these words were both appropriate and expected. Yet Gorman’s talent shown through in their combination, her elocution, and her well-timed build to a larger, more resilient message.
“Victory won’t lie in the blade, but all the bridges,” she said. “We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it, would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy, and this effort very nearly succeeded. But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated.”
AP / Reuters / Jonathan Ernst
Since the Democratic primaries, Biden’s potential presidency has been shaped by factors outside of the man himself. Maybe he wasn’t the more progressive voters’ first choice, but he was better than the Republican alternative. Maybe the country won’t rally behind him, specifically, but they’ll rally against his opponent. Maybe the Democratic party can persevere by turning back time and voting — in spirit only, of course — for Obama once again.
Biden has said that he sees himself as a transitional figure, and Wednesday’s inauguration showed why that can be more than OK; it can be extraordinary. Yes, Biden’s speech was good, and some would say even better than that. But there’s no denying whose speech was best, who connected most with the American people so eager for a new era, nor who represents the golden future our country is striving to become.
“If we merge mercy with might and might with right, then love becomes our legacy, and change our children’s birthright,” Gorman said. “So let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left, with every breathe from my bronze-pounded chest we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.”
“There is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.”
Even without her coat and beads, Gorman was that light on Wednesday. Vice President Kamala Harris was, too, and President Biden was certainly a part of it. But they were brave enough to share the light, so more could share in it. That’s a special brand of leadership, and if the next four years follow suit, we all won’t need as much courage to find the light.
Watch Gorman’s full speech below.