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

At 22, Amanda Gorman will become the youngest poet in recent memory to deliver a poem at a presidential inauguration. She'll be continuing a tradition that includes poets such as Robert Frost and Maya Angelou. (Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Together Live)

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By Jason Breslow | NPR

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 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 not just about 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 on 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 has had to overcome 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 the age of 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."

LISTEN TO AMANDA GORMAN DELIVER HER POEM

You can also watch her recite the poem here.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.