“For there is always light”: Amanda Gorman’s Inaugural Poem “The Hill We Climb” Delivers Message of Unity

If you didn’t know who Amanda Gorman was before Wednesday, you do now.

Gorman, 22, became the 6th and youngest poet to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration. Her inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” captured viewers across the country, and made her an overnight literary sensation. You can watch a video of Gorman’s recitation below:

Gorman’s performance was one of the rare times in contemporary American society when poetry took center stage across the nation, and Gorman used the opportunity to deliver, as she described in an interview with Anderson Cooper, a “message of hope, unity, and healing.”

Composing the poem on such short notice—she was invited to serve as inaugural poet in late December—and during such challenging times, was no small task. Gorman, as befitting a Harvard alumna, conducted preliminary research by reading the poems of previous inaugural poets (and talking to two of them, Richard Blanco and Elizabeth Alexander) and studying speeches of famous orators such as Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Winston Churchill. As reported by The New York Times, Gorman had completed about half of the poem when the January 6 events unfolded at the U.S. Capitol. The events spurred her to finish the poem late that night, with several news lines alluding to what had transpired.

Inaugural Poet Amanda Gorman gestures while reading her poem "The Hill We Climb" at the 2021 presidential inauguration. Photo courtesy of Corinna Schutte, Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.

Inaugural Poet Amanda Gorman gestures while reading her poem “The Hill We Climb” at the 2021 presidential inauguration. Photo courtesy of Corinna Schutte, Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.

Amanda’s poem begins with a question: “When day comes we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?” then proceeds to trace the pitfalls and promises of our country, a country that “isn’t broken but simply unfinished,” a country “where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.” (Amanda herself has presidential aspirations.)

The poem, hewing closely to the larger theme of Biden’s inaugural ceremony, “America United,” is an address to all Americans to come together to face and overcome the challenges before us. “If we’re to live up to our own time,” the poem pronounces, “then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made. That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb, if only we dare.”

At the end of the the poem Amanda returns to her initial question of how to “find light” during difficult times:

When day comes, we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid.
The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.

(Note: An official transcript of Amanda’s poem is not currently available, so her intended line breaks for “The Hill We Climb” are not yet known.)

You can read a transcript of “The Hill We Climb” through The Guardian website.

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, and National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman attend a reception prior to the opening reading of Smith’s 2017-2018 term, September 13, 2017. Photo by Shawn Miller.

In a previous post about Amanda’s selection as inaugural poet I mentioned that she had performed an original poem, “In This Place (An American Lyric),” at U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith‘s 2017 inaugural ceremony. Since then, several news outlets have reported that it was this very performance that led First Lady Dr. Jill Biden to select Gorman as inaugural poet. Dr. Biden “stumbled upon” a video of Amanda’s performance, which ultimately led to a Zoom call between Dr. Biden and Gorman in which the latter was asked to serve as inaugural poet. During the meeting, Dr. Biden complimented the yellow dress Gorman wore at Smith’s inaugural ceremony (see photo at right), which inspired her to wear a yellow dress at President Biden’s inauguration.

Media coverage of the lead-up to Amanda’s performance as inaugural poet, and the aftermath, has been extensive, and the success of her performance can be seen in the astronomical increase in her social media followers. I was amazed to watch Amanda’s Twitter followers skyrocket in the minutes after her performance, going from approximately 12 thousand followers the morning of the inauguration to 1.3 million followers at the time of this post’s publication!

Educators have also been quick to seize on a unique opportunity to introduce poetry in a relatable way to their students. Lesson plans for “The Hill We Climb” are already available through PBS and The New York Times.

While I could discuss the background to Amanda’s inaugural poem, and its reception, for days, I’ve instead selected below a sampling of significant or interesting articles about Amanda, her selection as inaugural poet, and the coverage of her historic reading that From the Catbird Seat readers can explore to learn more about these topics. I also list below other From the Catbird Seat blog posts related to inaugural poets. If you have any questions about Amanda’s inaugural reading, or inaugural poets, please contact us through our Ask a Librarian service. And if you haven’t already seen it, be sure to take a look a Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden’s wonderful tribute to Amanda and our current U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo, which we featured on the blog yesterday.


About Inaugural Poet Amanda Gorman and “The Hill We Climb”

Articles and Videos Published before Amanda’s Recitation

Articles and Videos Published after Amanda’s Recitation

From the Catbird Seat Posts about Inaugural Poets

“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.

Editor Ken McCormick and Doubleday’s Women Writers

The following guest post was written by Barbara Bair, curator of Literature, Culture, and the Arts, in the Library’s Manuscript Division. It explores the professional relationship of feminist authors and their editors, including Margaret Atwood and her editor Nan A. Talese. On December 17, from 7-8 pm EST, Atwood and Talese will be participating in […]