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Amanda Gorman: the Dutchess of Modern Contemporary Poetry

Pop Culture

February 05, 2023

Poetry: when you think of the word, what comes to mind? Perhaps classical writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, and William Shakespeare. Or possibly later greats like Langston Hughes or Maya Angelou.

Regardless of what artists you associate with poetry, it means different things to different people, and the art form has gone through many phases. However, writers like Amanda Gorman are redefining the boundaries of what a poem can be, and is leading a path that other young artists can follow. In honor of Black History Month, let's take a moment to reflect on the amazing impact Amanda Gorman has had on the writing world.

Only 24 years old, she has already accomplished so much in her career and her influence has not gone unnoticed. From being a Youth Poet Laureate to publishing multiple books, to being President Joe Biden's Inaugural Poet in 2021, she is inspiring a whole new generation of young women to follow in her footsteps. Let's look at the journey that she took from being a girl with a pen in California to a young woman speaking at Capitol Hill.

It All Starts With a Line

Amanda Gorman was born on March 7, 1998, in Los Angeles, California to her single mother Joan Watts, a sixth-grade teacher. She has two siblings, one being her twin sister Gabrielle. As a child, Gorman loved literature. Gorman grew up not watching a lot of TV, She swapped watching cartoons for creative expression when she started writing poetry at age eight.

In her youth, she struggled with a speech impediment, leading her to start speech therapy. She also has an auditory processing disorder that makes her hypersensitive to sound. In 2015 & 2016, Gorman won multiple awards Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.

During the same period, she won the national Silver Medal for novel writing, according to Scholastic.com. Along with this, she published her first poetry book, The One for Whom Food is Not Enough. In 2017, while attending Harvard University, she was selected to be the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate. Youth poet laureates are a title given to young artists displaying exceptional skill in the field of poetry and spoken word and is sponsored by the Library of Congress.

Gorman also met Michelle Obama at the White House as part of an event for the National Student Poets program. She accomplished all of this before the age of 20. What she did in this period of time deserves to be celebrated, but it is one event, on one cold day in January 2021 that would change Amanda Gorman's future forever.

The Hill to Success

Now, you could argue that before the following event, Amanda Gorman was well-known within the writing community. She has gained buzz, notoriety, and most noticeably, many opportunities due to being the first National Youth Poet Laureate. However, this opportunity was debatably the biggest one yet--the privilege of being an inaugural poet.

In January 2021, Gorman was selected by the First Lady herself, to read her poem, "The Hill We Climb" at President Joe Biden's inauguration. She was informed of her selection on December 30, 2020, The poem has to follow the inauguration's theme of "America United". Biden had heard her read at the Library of Congress and recommended her to the inaugural committee, according to Harper's Bazaar. So with that, on a cold day in Washington D.C. on January 20, 2021, Gorman read her poem in front of an audience of millions of people. At the time, she was 22, making her the youngest inaugural poet to date.

Something particularly fascinating in the case of Amanda Gorman is that inaugural poets usually come and go, not leaving a lasting impact on the general public. However, this was not the case for her. The Hill We Climb wasn't just another poem by an ordinary poet, it was a piece that deeply resonated with people.

Perhaps the reason being because it came at a time when a lot of Americans were stressed about the political climate of the country. The inauguration took place a mere two weeks after the January 6 riots on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C, the exact same place where Gorman would read her poem. In an interview with the New York Times, Gorman stated that she was about half way done with The Hill We Climb on the day of the January 6 insurrection, but the event had given her the inspiration necessary to finish the poem, and she completed it on the evening of January 6, 2021.

With the polarizing political opinions combined with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, Amanda Gorman's poem gave us something a lot of Americans lacked at the time--hope. The Hill We Climb was met with critical acclaim, with many critics believing that it would maintain its relevance and impactful message long after the inauguration. The poem echoes themes of unity and solidarity, and was praised by the likes of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote & starred in the Broadway musical Hamilton, which the poem makes several references to.

It was also praised by former President Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and many other influential figures. It was compared to poems by writers like Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou. Later on, Gorman’s poetry book of the same name and a novel would top bestseller lists. The immense success would land Gorman on the cover of Time magazine's February 2021.

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In April 2021, she was the first ever poet to land a place on the cover of Vogue.

She was also on the cover of Variety for their “Power of Women” series in September 2021. That same month, she was invited to co-host the Met Gala.

In November 2021, she was named one of Glamour Magazine’s 2021 Women of the Year.

And on December 7, 2021, she released her latest poetry book, Call Us What We Carry, which has been nominated for a 2023 Grammy Award in the category of Best Spoken Word Poetry Album.

Most recently, she was hired as an ambassador for the skincare company, Estée Lauder.

She has accomplished more in the past two years than most people will in their whole lives. Outside of her outstanding contributions to the world at large, let's take a deep dive into what made her so well known in the first place; her writing.

Poetry (in the font of Amanda Gorman)

Gorman's style of poetry is heavily influenced by spoken word and slam poetry, which treats poetry more as a performance rather than simply a body of text. Spoken word is defined as the following according to Poetry Foundation.org:

"A broad designation for poetry intended for performance. Though some spoken word poetry may also be published on the page, the genre has its roots in oral traditions and performance. Spoken word can encompass or contain elements of rap, hip-hop, storytelling, theater, and jazz, rock, blues, and folk music. Characterized by rhyme, repetition, improvisation, and word play, spoken word poems frequently refer to issues of social justice, politics, race, and community."

While Gorman's themes in her writing vary from poem to poem, her poetry commonly discusses themes of unity and solidarity within the Black Diaspora, marginalization, feminism, environmentalism, oppression and identity, especially in her book, Call Us What We Carry. These are all relevant themes that aren't always dealt with in the sensitive manner that they should be. A lot of the time, politics in the United States polarize these issues, making it just another thing on the ballot instead of what it is at its core: a human rights issue.

In September 2022, she read a poem about climate change at the UN. It was her first time speaking at United Nations, and spoke in front of a crowd of thousands. The poem captures the strength in her voice.

Gorman writes about these things with such delicacy and strength, and that is truly admirable. Outside of the writing itself, Gorman's stage presence is impeccable; she demands the audience's attention by the way she lets the poem consume her, to the extent that she isn't just reading a poem, she's becoming it. Her sense of rhythm, pacing, and overall delivery is spot on every time.

For a lot of artists in her line of work, it can take years to find their distinctive style of performance that separates them from other writers, but Amanda Gorman has found her voice rather quickly, and at such a young age. Now, she's using her voice to encourage other artists to shine, which leads me to my final point. Her impact on culture today.

Impact & Conclusion

Amanda Gorman is a phenomenon: she has left her footprint not only on the writing community but in the black community as well. She inspires young people to make changes and stand up for what is right. A prime example of this is her picture book for children which was released in September 2021, titled Change Sings. The book follows a young girl who uses music to interact with the world around her and inspires others, much like the author uses poetry to deliver her message.

Amanda Gorman has the potential to leave the same legacy as writers like Bell Hooks and Maya Angelou. She's taught us that you don't need to be famous to make change. "You don’t have to be a poet, you don’t have to be a politician or be in the White House to make an impact with your words. We all have this capacity to find solutions for the future." She said in a 2018 interview with Glamour. She has shown everyone what it means to have a voice--and make it heard.

Alexis Aryeequaye
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Alexis Aryeequaye is a 16-year-old sophomore in high school, and aspires to become a journalist. She is an editor, writer, and interviewer for The Teen Magazine. Alexis enjoys anything having to do with current events, social justice, music, politics, or writing. Alexis loves to write poetry in her spare time. She is a published poet and is a recipient of the 2022 NCTE Promising Young Writers Award.