photo of Amanda Gorman by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II, courtesy the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, licensed under CC BY
I suppose I am like a lot of other people who never knew, until President Joe Biden’s inauguration, that America had a national youth poet laureate or that we needed one. But we did, and we do.
Actually, we have had four such young poets laureate since the title was first awarded in 2017. The honor goes to a teenager who “demonstrates not only extraordinary literary talent but also a proven record of community engagement and youth leadership,” according to Poets & Writers magazine. The current honoree is Meera Dasgupta, a student at New York City’s Stuyvesant High School, dually enrolled at Hunter College. Dasgupta’s LinkedIn profile outshines those of most people three times her age. But the accomplished teen still has a hard act to follow in Amanda Gorman, the inaugural holder of the title whose presidential inaugural performance opened my culturally clueless eyes.
I did not see Gorman’s live recitation of her poem, “The Hill We Climb” – not at first. I was listening to the inaugural ceremonies while exercising. So I did not realize right away that the woman I heard delivering the masterful message was referring to her 22-year-old present-day self, not an earlier version, when she described “a skinny Black girl / descended from slaves ... [who] can dream of becoming president / only to find herself reciting for one.” I only realized how young Gorman is when I saw the video clips that evening.
Gorman, a Harvard graduate, was already a familiar name in literary circles. She published her first book, “The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough,” in 2015 and has two more books forthcoming in 2021. Last year, she appeared on John Krasinski’s popular YouTube program “Some Good News,” sharing the screen with Oprah Winfrey and offering a commencement address as part of a virtual celebration for students graduating during lockdown. First lady Jill Biden, who had seen Gorman read at a Library of Congress event, suggested her appearance at last week’s inauguration. The work Gorman crafted for a small, pandemic-limited live audience and a vast, global electronic one meshed seamlessly with the call for national unity that President Biden made in his inaugural address:
We are striving to forge a union with purpose
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us
but what stands before us
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another
We seek harm to none and harmony for all
All inaugurations are meant to inspire. John F. Kennedy exhorted his fellow Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you―ask what you can do for your country.” Taking office amid an economic crisis that followed the Vietnam War and Watergate, Ronald Reagan called on citizens to “begin an era of national renewal.” Bill Clinton asserted that “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” Even Donald Trump, in his bombastic manner, promised that “through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.”
But presidents, from the day they take office, have already had their most optimistic visions dulled by the vicissitudes of life and politics they encounter along the path to the White House. We needed a youth poet laureate to articulate the sharpest, brightest vision of a future world that she and her cohort will inhabit long after the new president – any new president – has departed. A strong case can be made that this year, we needed to hear from someone like Amanda Gorman more than any inaugural year in memory.
Gorman says she wants to run for president in 2036, when she will be old enough to do so. She already has Hillary Clinton’s endorsement, if that helps.
The world has now gotten a taste of Gorman’s literary talent, but she has also continued to fulfill the promise of community engagement that her 2017 award recognized. As a teenager, she established the nonprofit One Pen One Page, which provided creative writing programs for students online. She currently serves on the board of directors of 826 National, which oversees a network of youth writing and publishing operations across the country. It is clear that for Gorman, art and community engagement go hand in hand.
Our most effective presidents tend to be strong communicators. Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt are uncontroversial examples. Reagan and Barack Obama, because they are of our own time, would draw more debate on the matter of effectiveness, though their oratorical abilities are above reproach. Those modern examples are proof that being a great speaker, or a great poet, is not enough to make a great president.
It is an excellent start, however. By 2036, Amanda Gorman will have a lot more life experience, which will inevitably shape her thoughts about what is achievable and how best to achieve it. This pragmatism is necessary to be a great president. Yet I hope she, and her fellow youth poets laureate, never lose sight of the vision that she shared with the rest of us last week. It was a vision of an America that never stops climbing the hill, no matter how long it takes to achieve the summit.