Immediately after President Biden’s inaugural address, 22-year-old Amanda Gorman was introduced as the National Youth Poet Laureate. She mesmerized the nation with her poem, “Hill to Climb.”
As I listened with my middle school students, her words were like a sort of magic swirling around the my classroom. Standing there in her yellow coat outside the Capitol, her poem came alive through her vivid expressions and gentle hand gestures. Not a single student even tapped a pencil or looked at the clock.
I didn’t move either.
None of us wanted it to end.
After she closed, I tried to explain to my students who she was as a “poet laureate.” I wanted them to appreciate that people were chosen to give voice to moments like this in our nation.
Frankly, I didn’t have enough of the right words and felt worried no one else may ever tell them about this.
I spent all afternoon learning more. I thought it might help you too!
So, what exactly is a Poet Laureate anyway?
- The United States has both a Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress and a Youth People’s Poet Laureate.
- Both are appointed positions and last from one to two years.
What do Poet Laureates do?
The main job of Poet Laureates is to seek to raise the Nation’s appreciation for reading and writing poetry.
Wait, come again? What do Poet Laureates do?
Basically, their job is to keep poetry alive and important. Seriously. Isn’t that beautiful?
They have a few mandatory tasks, but Poet Laureates can honor poetry in any way that interests them.
As just one example, Poet Laureate, Joseph Brodsky started a program providing poetry in airports, supermarkets, and hotel rooms.
So, which Poet Laureate is Amanda Gorman?
- Actually, Amanda Gorman isn’t either of these Poet Laureates. (This confused me because of how she was introduced at the inauguration.)
- At age 19, Amanda Gorman was the first to become the National Youth Poet Laureate which is a title not appointed by the Library of Congress but awarded by an independent but nationally respected group Urban Word that seeks for: “exceptional youth poets who use their voice to inspire change.”
- Even though this is different than the nationally appointed positions, as National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda had basically the same job: use poetry to inspire the nation.
Do U.S. presidents always have Poet Laureates read at their inauguration?
- Nope. This was something President Biden chose to do.
- The only other presidents to ask for poetry at their inaugurations are Barrack Obama, Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy.
- The inaugural poets include Robert Frost, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Maja Angelou. Amanda is BY FAR the youngest to ever have this honor!
Whose idea was it to ask Amanda Gorman to write the poem?
- President Biden’s wife, Jill.
- She remembered seeing Amanda perform a poem at the Library of Congress while Amanda was serving as the National Youth Poet Laureate. She suggested her to President Biden.
What does it look like to write a poem for a Presidential Inauguration?
- Everyone has a different writing process, right? Amanda said that she was given the theme, “America United” at the end of December and started doing a TON of research.
- She read LOTS of inauguration speeches and lots of history to help her with ideas. She also listened (and listened) to Hamilton. (Can you hear the Hamilton allusions in the poem?)
- Amanda was about half-way through when, on January 6th, protestors stormed the Capitol.
- She said, “I was like, ‘Well this is something we need to talk about,’” and she finished the poem that night.
What’s next for this poet?
- Amanda Gorman is currently a Sophomore at Harvard University. Her roommates are so proud right now.
- She has a children’s book, Change Sings that will be published later this year.
- An illustrated version of her inauguration poem is coming out sometime soon too. (I need it.)
- She said she plans to run for president in 2036. “So put it on your iCloud calendar.”
There is so much pain and struggle right now. My heart was lightened by not only the words of a new president but a poet who took poetry out of text books and made it a living and breathing force for good in our nation. This Poet Laureate did her job today, and I want my children, my students, and our box writers to know it!