'History Has Its Eyes On Us.' Poet Amanda Gorman Seeks Right Words For Inauguration

Jan 19, 2021
Originally published on January 20, 2021 3:14 pm

When Amanda Gorman was asked to write a poem for President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration on Wednesday, she didn't know where to begin. The nation has just been through a bitter election. Americans are as divided as ever. And the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage.

"It was really daunting to begin the poem because you don't even really know the entry point in which to step into the murk," she said in an interview Monday with NPR's Steve Inskeep.

Gorman started by doing the same thing she always does — doing her research. She steeped herself in the literature of past inaugural poets. She looked to orators from throughout history who have spoken about not just a divided America but also a united America. She read Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, even Winston Churchill.

Day by day, Gorman chipped away at the poem. She was about halfway through, she says, when on Jan. 6 an angry mob of pro-Trump extremists staged an insurrection at the Capitol.

"I was like, 'Well, this is something we need to talk about.' "

Later that night, she finished the poem, titled "The Hill We Climb." In it, she writes:

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.

In this truth, in this faith we trust.

For while we have our eyes on the future,

History has its eyes on us.

Gorman is no stranger to having to change her work midstream. Like Biden, who has spoken openly about having stuttered as a child, Gorman grew up with a childhood speech impediment of her own. She had difficulty saying certain letters of the alphabet — the letter R was especially tough — which caused her to have to constantly "self-edit and self-police."

"I'd want to say, 'Girls can change the world,' but I cannot say so many letters in that statement, so I'd say things like 'Young women can shape the globe.' "

Gorman says she never expected to become a "public occasion poet," but at just 22-years-old, the Los Angeles native has already performed everywhere from the Library of Congress to the observation deck at the Empire State Building.

It hasn't always been an easy path. She remembers when she first started performing in public and worrying about which words she'd even be able to say out loud correctly.

"I would be in the bathroom scribbling five minutes before, trying to figure out if I could say 'Earth' or if I can say 'girl' or if I can say 'poetry.' And you know, doing the best with the poem I could."

But that did little to stunt what has been a meteoric rise. In 2014, Gorman was named the Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles at age 16 and then the first National Youth Poet Laureate three years later.

When she steps to the microphone on Wednesday, Gorman will become the youngest person in recent memory to deliver a poem at a presidential inauguration. She'll also be continuing a tradition that includes luminaries such as Robert Frost and Maya Angelou — a personal hero who was mute growing up as a child.

"I think there is a real history of orators who have had to struggle, a type of imposed voicelessness, you know, having that stage at inauguration," says Gorman. "So it's really special for me."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Americans who speak at tomorrow's presidential inauguration include a poet. New presidents sometimes invite one. John F. Kennedy invited Robert Frost, for example. In the blinding sun in 1961, the 86-year-old Frost could not see the words of the special poem he'd written for the occasion, so he abandoned that text and recited another poem from memory. For Joe Biden, the inaugural poet is 22. Amanda Gorman of Los Angeles is the former National Youth Poet Laureate. One of her past poems in 2017 included the line tyrants fear the poet. Tomorrow, Gorman brings a new poem to the stage, and like Robert Frost, she might well change the words she plans to say. In the past, she has sometimes tweaked a poem moments before reading it aloud. The reason Amanda Gorman has done that became clear as she spoke with us.

AMANDA GORMAN: I've been writing poetry ever since I can remember. I want to say probably 4 or 5. It wasn't good at all, but I fell in love with it. And I think that passion was exacerbated by the fact that I had a speech impediment. So having an arena in which I could express my thoughts freely was just so liberating that I fell head over heels, you know, when I was barely a toddler.

INSKEEP: What, if I may ask, was the speech impediment?

GORMAN: Thank you for asking because I don't think people get specific enough about it. You know, when I say it, I think people assume stutter. So how mine manifested itself was I had difficulty pronouncing certain letters in the alphabet, which I would overcome. You know, so it's the sh (ph) or ch (ph), but the hardest one that took me until, I want to say, I was 20 to say would be the R sound. So, you know, saying things like poetwy (ph), not really able to say the R sound, and it took a really long time for me to get it. And now I do, so I'm happy.

INSKEEP: Did you go through a period of avoiding the words that were hard to say?

GORMAN: Oh, definitely. I think as a poet, you know, there is not only the written aspect of the art form, but there's also spoken word. And I remember writing poems in which I would have to basically self-edit and self-police. You know, I'd want to say girls can change the world, but I cannot say many of the letters of that statement. So I'd say things like young women can shape the globe. So I'd really have to be aware of the depth of synonyms to use to express the same sentiment of thought because many times if I was trying to say what I really had intended to say, I would be unintelligible.

INSKEEP: And was it a conscious choice to become a performative poet to say, I'm going to write poems that are suitable for public occasions and say them in front of crowds?

GORMAN: I'm not sure if it was so much a proactive choice as kind of the answering of a calling. It kind of just started happening more and more. You know, as I mentioned with the speech impediment, I am not expecting to be the public occasion poet. That is the last place I am expecting anyone to want me. But as I continue to write and share my poetry and become brave enough to read at cafes and things like that, I started getting invited to read at occasions and I would say yes. And, you know, I would be in the bathroom scribbling five minutes before trying to figure out if I could say Earth or if I could say girl or if I could say poetry and, you know, doing the best with the poem I could.

INSKEEP: Joe Biden has been very public about the fact that he stuttered as a kid. And there's been some journalism suggesting that he still struggles to keep down that stutter and that explains some of his public statements over time. What is it like, given your background, to write for this particular president-elect?

GORMAN: Well, I think it's incredibly special and sentimental, not just for me but the entire country. I mean, I think obviously there is that connection with the speech impediment, which for me is huge. There is also a deeper historicity to this in that Maya Angelou was mute growing up as a child and she grew up to deliver on the inaugural poem for President Bill Clinton. So I think there is a real history of orators who have had to struggle a type of imposed voicelessness, you know, having that stage in the inauguration. So it's really special for me, but I think beyond that, President-elect Joe Biden is just so incredibly capable, along with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. And they just symbolize, I think, the best in our country. So that in itself, beyond I think even my own personal connection, is enough to get me excited.

INSKEEP: You are being asked to say something profound at a profound occasion. There's been this divisive election. There was the attack on the Capitol. There's the pandemic. We're just passing 400,000 dead. In trying to speak to all of that, where do you even begin?

GORMAN: Right. It was really daunting to begin the poem because you don't even really know, I think, the entry point in which to step into the murk. And so for me with poems, I do the same thing that I always do. I'm a straight-A student, so I do my homework and I do my research. So I started with really steeping myself in the literature of inaugural poets and then also expanding my purview beyond that. So who are the writers and orators throughout history who I look up to who are speaking within a divided America but speak of a united America? And so I was reading a lot of Frederick Douglass, of Abraham Lincoln, of Martin Luther King, even a lot of Churchill as well. And just, OK, I have this opportunity. What are the ways in which rhetoric has been used for good? And how can I use those same skills and instruments?

INSKEEP: Would you read us just a little bit of what you came up with?

GORMAN: Sure. So this is a verse towards the middle of the poem. (Reading) 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. In this truth, in this faith, we trust. For while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us.

INSKEEP: Among other things, I'm just listening to all the Rs in there and loving that, how perfectly you said it.

GORMAN: Oh, my God. Destroy is so hard for me to say. It's - don't know why I put it in there.

INSKEEP: Well, Amanda Gorman, it's a beautiful sentiment, and I look forward to hearing the rest of it.

GORMAN: Thanks so much, Steve.

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