Viewers who watched Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration were treated to a day chock full of good speeches – and one great poem.
Calling for national unity, Biden, 78, gave one of the best speeches of his 50-year political career. Only 22, Amanda Gorman delivered powerful poetry that will rank alongside those given at previous inaugurals by Robert Frost and Maya Angelou. Her poem also should be an exclamation mark that young voices can be as engaging, enlightening and insightful as older voices – and sometimes more so.
The first National Youth Poet Laureate, Gorman’s reading of “The Hill We Climb” featured an energetic, youthful cadence that was laced together with memorable passages a veteran poet would envy, such as:
- “Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed/a nation that isn’t broken/but simply unfinished.”
- “If we merge mercy with might/and might with right/then love becomes our legacy/and change our children’s birthright.”
- “The new dawn blooms as we free it/for there is always light/if only we’re brave enough to see it/if only we’re brave enough to be it.”
The reaction to her poem was instantaneous, described by one observer as electric. Online views of her reading exceeded 1 million and her followers skyrocketed immediately after she finished. Her books of poetry raced to the top of charts, even though they aren’t yet on bookshelves.
Oprah Winfrey was one of the first to congratulate Gorman, “I have never been prouder to see another young woman rise! Brava Brava. Maya Angelou is cheering – and so am I.” Gorman confirmed Winfrey had befriended her, graciously posting: “I would be nowhere without the women whose footsteps I dance in. While reciting my poem, I wore a ring with a caged bird – a gift from Oprah for the occasion, to symbolize Maya Angelou, a previous inaugural poet. Here’s to the women who have climbed my hills before.”
Fresh eyes can often see truth that has faded from older eyes. Unfettered youthful voices can speak up where older voices have grown tired and silent.
One of the lines in Gorman’s poem caught the ear of Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and star of “Hamilton”, who noted her line “history has its eyes on us” paralleled the line from his award-winning musical, “History has it eyes on you”.
The poem also drew praise from Barack Obama who wrote, “On a day for the history books, [Amanda Gorman] delivered a poem that more than met the moment. Young people like her are proof that ‘there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it; if only we’re brave enough to be it.'”
Obama’s observation serves as a reminder not to overlook the power in the words spoken by young people. Wisdom may come with age through experience. However, fresh eyes can often see truth that has faded from older eyes. Unfettered youthful voices can speak up where older voices have grown tired and silent.
Reports indicate Gorman’s selection as the inaugural poet was recommended by Dr. Jill Biden, who teaches writing at a Virginia community college. Beyond the stirring words, the discerning choice of the youngest inaugural poet was a perfect offset to the inauguration of the oldest person ever to assume the presidency. Gorman’s prominent role also sent a strong intergenerational message to younger Americans that their turn at the wheel of state is just around the corner.
Public affairs professionals, public relations teams and content creators tend to trivialize the voices of youth, relegating them to the genre of “feel good” videos or bit-players in ads. As Gorman shows, youthful voices can achieve greater purpose and touch wider audiences than we realize. They can speak authoritatively about hope and the future they harbor and the pain and sorrow they feel. They can be among the most authentic, unfiltered voices surrounding us that can go unnoticed. They shouldn’t be ignored or overlooked.