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.
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.
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