As 17-year-old Darius Jackson watched TV, listening in rapt attention to 22-year-old Amanda Gorman recite her poem The Hill We Climb at the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden last month, he was struck by the “powerful words” of the young Black woman.
It was a “defining moment in history,” said Jackson, who is a high school senior at Central Visual and Performing Arts School in St. Louis, Missouri.
With her reading on Jan. 21, televised nationally and across the globe, Gorman has singlehandedly lit a firestorm of interest in an art form that spans millennia, now drawing a new generation of enthusiasts.
Jackson told VOA he saw some similarities in her poem to Martin Luther King Jr.’s stirring I Have a Dream speech in 1963 that called for an end to racism.
“There’s been tension and racial divide in America,” Jackson explained, “and in this poem I feel she was trying to put a Band-Aid on the wound we’ve been going through” to try to bring the country together.
His English teacher, Maggie Schuh, said the inspirational poems Gorman recited at the inauguration and more recently at the Super Bowl of American football resonate with her students.
Gorman, who became the first National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017, is inspiring children to reach out to poetry, which is “alive and well,” she said, and includes more than just reading “stuffy old dead white guys’ poems.”
Today’s poetry, which includes slam, spoken word and hip-hop lyrics, gives them more freedom to express themselves, she said.
According to Tyra Jenkins, an English teacher at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, Gorman’s poetry, which focuses on issues such as civil rights, feminism, unity and social justice, is making her students think about “expressing their political voices.”
Jenkins also said Gorman’s smooth delivery gives them more confidence that they, too, can be good public speakers.
But there was a time when Gorman wasn’t so confident.
The poet grew up in Los Angeles and turned to writing when she was young to cope with a speech impediment. When she was 14, she joined WriteGirl, an afterschool program that mentors teenage girls in underserved communities to give them a voice through creative writing.
Karen Taylor, founder and executive director of WriteGirl, recalls that when Gorman first came “she was shy and terrified of the microphone.” But always eager to learn, once she got over her fear of the microphone, she was “unstoppable.”
“Gorman comes from a vibrant slam poetry tradition. She has a lot of energy and there’s a freshness to her delivery” that I think resonates with young people today, explained Kiki Petrosino, a poetry professor at the University of Virginia.
“And now she’s considered a shining star,” said Taylor of Gorman, who recently graduated from Harvard University with a degree in sociology.
Gorman has also “captivated the imagination of young people because she is the voice of democracy, freedom, and a future of what’s possible,” said Laura Brief, chief executive officer of 826 National, a youth writing network for elementary and high school students in some under-resourced communities across the country. Gorman is on the group’s board and is mentoring some of the students in its workshops, she said.
Beyance James, a senior at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, calls Gorman “an inspiration who uses her words to touch everyone, especially in such difficult times.”
James said the last lines of The Hill We Climb are special to her because they are a reminder for her and other young people to make a difference, even when times are tough:
“For there is always light,
if only we're brave enough to see it.
If only we're brave enough to be it.”