DWIGHT GARNER: At the inauguration, Amanda Gorman wove history and the future Into a stirring melody
Posted January 22, 2021 5:00 a.m. EST
Updated January 22, 2021 8:52 a.m. EST
EDITOR'S NOTE: Dwight Garner is a book critic for The New York Times. He was, for many years, an editor for the Times' Book Review.
The sun came out intermittently at President Joe Biden’s inauguration in Washington, but Amanda Gorman was her own source of illumination. With her canary-yellow Prada coat, her regal red headband, her thrice-scrubbed innocence and her exacting delivery, she was a one-person reminder that if winter is here, then spring cannot be far behind.
The 22-year-old Gorman read her poem “The Hill We Climb” after performances by Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez and Garth Brooks — the great, the good and the well-intentioned. More notably, she appeared in the wake of poets who’ve read at previous presidential transitions, among them Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Miller Williams, Elizabeth Alexander and Richard Blanco.
It hardly matters that “The Hill We Climb” is not an eternal work of art: neither were the poems by Gorman’s predecessors. In cadences that fell somewhere between those of Lauryn Hill and Angelou herself, Gorman rose to meet a moment. She made the firm of Frost, Angelou, Williams, Alexander and Blanco seem mildly pretentious by comparison.
Her poem blended the political and the personal. She imagined, she wrote, a country and a time
Where a skinny Black girl
descended from slaves and raised by a single mother
can dream of becoming president
only to find herself reciting for one.
After four years during which language was debased — when it meant anything at all — Gorman offered a fortifying tablespoon of American plain-spokenness. She offered lucidity and euphony. Her hand motions were expressive, as if she were conducting an orchestra of one.
If her performance made you vaguely feel that you’d had a blood transfusion, it was perhaps because you could sense the beginning of a remade connection in America between cultural and political life. A sleeping limb was tingling back into action.
If the poet seemed like a character from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” sprung to life, well, Gorman, who studied sociology at Harvard, is a member of Generation Hamilton. She has said she listened to the soundtrack while preparing to write her poem, and she specifically referenced the musical in it.
In the poem, she writes: “For while we have our eyes on the future / history has its eyes on us.” This echoes “History Has Its Eyes on You,” sung in “Hamilton” by George Washington.
Later in the poem, she said: “Everyone shall sit under their own vine, and fig tree / And no one shall make them afraid.” This refers to a biblical passage Washington admired, and which the character of Washington sings in the musical.
Gorman made one wish that more idiomatic political speech had melodic interest, that our leaders might sometimes break out into song, or step into skates. A touring spectacular hovers into view: “Schumer on Ice!”
Gorman’s lines aren’t like Miranda’s, exactly. He packs more rhymes into his couplets, sometimes five or six in a line. He’s spoken in praise of his “polysyllabic rhyming heroes,” the rappers Rakim, Big Pun and Eminem.
Like Miranda, Gorman reminds us that, as Nicholson Baker put it in his poetry-mad novel “The Anthologist,” hip-hop is our light verse. It’s musically and metrically alive. There were moments when one could imagine one of Miranda’s characters onstage, declaiming Gorman’s work:
being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it.
Those last lines are a reminder of how difficult her assignment was, delivering a poem to a nation still shaken by the attempted takeover of its Capitol by a raging mob of deluded souls. In her darkest moments, while writing her poem, Gorman must have felt she was trying to make a bisque from a carcass.
In his memoir “Mo’ Meta Blues,” Questlove wrote that Public Enemy’s music and lyrics drove him to read American history. In “Between the World and Me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates remarked that a real education happens “three call slips at a time.” It’s easy to imagine young people filing into libraries because of Gorman’s poem.
Few things seem more stale than last season’s “occasion” poems. You imagine old ones laid out in forgotten display cases, nibbled by silverfish. Gorman’s was more alive, for a moment, than most.
No Republican president-elect has had a poem read at his inauguration. The first poet to read at one was Robert Frost. He composed a poem called “Dedication” to read at John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration.
Its first three lines were noble in sentiment:
Summoning artists to participate
In the august occasions of the state
Seems something artists ought to celebrate.
Frost never got to read “Dedication.” High wind and strong sun made him unable to decipher the poem, and instead he declaimed his poem “The Gift Outright” from memory.
Frost died in 1963, at 88. Less than a month before his own death, Kennedy appeared at the groundbreaking, at Amherst College, of the Robert Frost Library.
Kennedy could have been speaking about Gorman when he said: “When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”