Youngest Inaugural Poet in U.S. History

Amanda Gorman photo

By Lucie Turkel

The world can’t stop talking about Amanda Gorman, and for good reason. The 22-year-old was named the very first National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017 and has recently become a household name after reciting her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” at the inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. But being the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history isn’t Gorman’s only accomplishment; in fact, the cum laude graduate of Harvard University and Phi Beta Kappa member has done more in her 22 years than many have done in a lifetime.

Gorman’s love affair with poetry (and her incomparable talent in the medium) has been apparent since a young age. A Los Angeles native, Gorman was raised by a single mother and grew up with two siblings. In a 2018 interview with Glamour, Gorman explained the unique beginnings of her poetic legacy—the lack of television in the Gorman household. To entertain herself, Gorman began to write poems at age eight. “I was an artist and a creator from a young age because I had to be,” she said in the interview.

From there her talent became unignorable. In 2013, Gorman became a youth delegate for the United Nations; in 2014, she was named the Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles; and in 2015, she self-published her first poetry book, The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough. And this all occurred before entering her freshman year at Harvard, where she studied sociology.

The year 2017 was monumental for the breakout poet superstar. While still a sophomore at Harvard, Gorman became the first National Youth Poet Laureate, beating out five other finalists for the coveted position. “I did a lot of sitting back and thinking about what I wanted for myself and what I wanted for my country,” Gorman said in a 2017 interview with The New York Times on her new role, “more unity, more support for the arts, and more opportunities for young writers from marginalized groups.”

Some of Gorman’s other notable accomplishments include reciting for fellow ΦBK member and poet Tracy K. Smith at the Library of Congress, receiving a Genius Grant from OZY Media, being named one of Glamour magazine’s 2018 “College Women of the Year”, and penning Nike’s 2020 Black History Month Campaign. And this is just the short list. 

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith (ΦBK, Princeton University), and National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman (ΦBK, Harvard University), July 2017.

Is there anything Gorman can’t achieve? Believe it or not, presenting her work to the public did not always come naturally to her, contrary to what her celebrated performance at the inauguration may lead one to believe. In fact, Gorman grew up with a speech impediment that she worked not necessarily to overcome but rather embrace. In 2014, Gorman wrote in the Huffington Post, “I learned that writing wasn’t about pronunciation, but about style and the author’s voice. This lesson helped me grow on endless occasions in my life.”

The 2021 presidential inauguration marked another turning point in the young poet’s life, as Gorman’s recitation catapulted her to international stardom and acclaim. Supporters of her reading include former President Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, to name just a few. The theme of President Biden’s inauguration, “America United,” resonated with Gorman and aligned with her usual topics of choice, which include race, oppression, feminism, and hope. 

“What I really aspire to do in the poem is to be able to use my words to envision a way in which our country can still come together and can still heal,” Gorman said in a recent New York Times interview about her inauguration poem. “But it’s doing that in a way that is not erasing or neglecting the harsh truths I think America needs to reconcile with.”

So what’s next for the superstar poet? 

As one can imagine, a lot. Gorman has two books in the works:The Hill We Climb and Other Poems, a poetry collection; and Change Sings, a children’s book illustrated by Loren Long. Both books are available for pre-order, will be released in September, and have already become national bestsellers. 

Along with her writing career, Gorman has political aspirations. She told The New York Times that she will be running for president of the United States in 2036. “It’s not that I want to run; it’s that I’m going to run,” she said in her Glamour interview. “Seeing the ways that I as a young black woman can inspire people is something I want to continue in politics. I don’t want to just speak works; I want to turn them into realities and actions.” 

With her drive, passion, and talent, such ambitious goals don’t seem far off for Gorman. As she herself told the country in the final stanzas of her poem—“there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it; if only we’re brave enough to be it.” One can only sit back and wait to see what else Gorman sheds light upon in her coming years.

Lucie Turkel is a senior at the University of Connecticut pursuing an individualized major in comparative literary and cultural studies and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in May 2020. UConn is home to the Epsilon of Connecticut chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.