Amanda Gorman Selected as President-Elect Joe Biden’s Inaugural Poet

National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman reads her work, “An American Lyric,” at the inaugural reading of Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, September 13, 2017. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Today, the Presidential Inaugural Committee for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris announced that former National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman will perform her poetry at the 59th Presidential Inaugural Swearing-In Ceremony, set to take place on Wednesday, January 20, on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol. Amanda, who was appointed the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate in April 2017, will become only the 6th poet to perform at a presidential inauguration, and the first inaugural poet since Richard Blanco, who read his poem “One Today” at Barack Obama’s 2013 inaugural. She is also the youngest ever inaugural poet. Here is a complete list of previous inaugural poets and the poems they performed:

  • Robert Frost, who recited “The Gift Outright” (text) at John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural. Frost recited the poem from memory after he was unable to read the text of the poem he’d written for the inauguration, “Dedication” (text), because of the sun’s glare upon the snow-covered ground.
  • Maya Angelou, who read “On the Pulse of Morning” (textvideo) at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inaugural.
  • Miller Williams, who read “Of History and Hope” (textvideo) at Bill Clinton’s 1997 inaugural.
  • Elizabeth Alexander, who read “Praise Song for the Day” (textvideo) at Barack Obama’s 2009 inaugural.
  • Richard Blanco, who read “One Today” (textvideo) at Barack Obama’s 2013 inaugural.

Amanda’s reading will be bookended by a rendition of the National Anthem by Lady Gaga and a musical performance by Jennifer Lopez. It will no doubt reflect and amplify the overarching theme of the presidential inauguration, “America United,” which, according to the Inaugural Committee, “reflects the beginning of a new national journey that restores the soul of America, brings the country together, and creates a path to a brighter future.”

Amanda, we’re thrilled to point out, has a direct connection to the From the Catbird Seat blog. In her capacity as National Youth Poet Laureate she contributed a monthly guest post from October 2017 to April 2018 for the blog. Her connection to the Library of Congress does not end there—like the previous five inaugural poets, she has performed her work at the Library of Congress. Most notably, she served as the “inaugural poet” for the 22nd U.S. poet laureate, Tracy K. Smith, at Tracy’s 2017 inaugural ceremony. Tracy, who like Amanda is a Harvard alumna, had asked Amanda to read a poem to open the program. Amanda agreed, and wrote and performed a new and powerful poem for the occasion—”In This Place (An American Lyric).” You can view a video of Tracy’s inaugural below, skipping to 01:19 to watch Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden introduce Amanda. Amanda’s performance of the poem begins at 04:57:

While as of this writing the poetry that Amanda will read at President-Elect Biden’s inaugural is not known, I wouldn’t be surprised to see her perform “In This Place (An American Lyric),” which offers a much-needed message of hope and unity as this moment in American history. (UPDATE: A January 15 Associated Press article notes that Amanda was recommended as inaugural poet by Jill Biden and will perform an original poem for the occasion, titled “The Hill We Climb.” Read more here.)

Amanda was kind enough to publish “In This Place (An American Lyric)” in her October 11, 2017, blog post recounting her experience as Tracy’s inaugural poet, and I reproduce it below:

In This Place (An American Lyric)

There’s a poem in this place—
in the footfalls in the halls
in the quiet beat of the seats.
It is here, at the curtain of day,
where America writes a lyric
you must whisper to say.

There’s a poem in this place—
in the heavy grace,
the lined face of this noble building,
collections burned and reborn twice.

There’s a poem in Boston’s Copley Square
where protest chants
tear through the air
like sheets of rain,
where love of the many
swallows hatred of the few.

There’s a poem in Charlottesville
where tiki torches string a ring of flame
tight round the wrist of night
where men so white they gleam blue—
seem like statues
where men heap that long wax burning
ever higher
where Heather Heyer
blooms forever in a meadow of resistance.

There’s a poem in the great sleeping giant
of Lake Michigan, defiantly raising
its big blue head to Milwaukee and Chicago—
a poem begun long ago, blazed into frozen soil,
strutting upward and aglow.

There’s a poem in Florida, in East Texas
where streets swell into a nexus
of rivers, cows afloat like mottled buoys in the brown,
where courage is now so common
that 23-year-old Jesus Contreras rescues people from floodwaters.

There’s a poem in Los Angeles
yawning wide as the Pacific tide
where a single mother swelters
in a windowless classroom, teaching
black and brown students in Watts
to spell out their thoughts
so her daughter might write
this poem for you.

There’s a lyric in California
where thousands of students march for blocks,
undocumented and unafraid;
where my friend Rosa finds the power to blossom
in deadlock, her spirit the bedrock of her community.
She knows hope is like a stubborn
ship gripping a dock,
a truth: that you can’t stop a dreamer
or knock down a dream.

How could this not be her city
su nación
our country
our America,
our American lyric to write—
a poem by the people, the poor,
the Protestant, the Muslim, the Jew,
the native, the immigrant,
the black, the brown, the blind, the brave,
the undocumented and undeterred,
the woman, the man, the nonbinary,
the white, the trans,
the ally to all of the above
and more?

Tyrants fear the poet.
Now that we know it
we can’t blow it.
We owe it
to show it
not slow it
although it
hurts to sew it
when the world
skirts below it.

Hope—
we must bestow it
like a wick in the poet
so it can grow, lit,
bringing with it
stories to rewrite—
the story of a Texas city depleted but not defeated
a history written that need not be repeated
a nation composed but not yet completed.

There’s a poem in this place—
a poem in America
a poet in every American
who rewrites this nation, who tells
a story worthy of being told on this minnow of an earth
to breathe hope into a palimpsest of time—
a poet in every American
who sees that our poem penned
doesn’t mean our poem’s end.

There’s a place where this poem dwells—
it is here, it is now, in the yellow song of dawn’s bell
where we write an American lyric
we are just beginning to tell.

(This poem was first published by Split This Rock.)

All of us at From the Catbird Seat are thrilled to see Amanda, and (once more) poetry, take center stage at the inaugural events.

“Of Headspace and Fire”: An Interview with Terrance Hayes

This interview with Terrance Hayes was conducted in 2013 by Rachel Carstens as part of the Poetry and Literature Center’s online Interview Series. The series featured emerging and established literary writers in dynamic and thought-provoking conversation. Though the series is no longer active, From the Catbird Seat is reprinting these interviews to bring them new light.