Gorman summoned images dire and triumphant Wednesday as she called out to the world “even as we grieved, we grew.”
In language referencing Biblical scripture and at times echoing the oratory of John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Gorman read with urgency and assertion as she began by asking, “Where can we find light/In this never-ending shade?” and used her own poetry and life story as an answer.
The poem’s title, “The Hill We Climb,” suggested both labor and transcendence.
“I have kind of stumbled upon this genre. It’s been something I find a lot of emotional reward in, writing something I can make people feel touched by, even if it’s just for a night,” says Gorman.
The Los Angeles resident has written for everything from a July 4 celebration featuring the Boston Pops Orchestra to the inauguration at Harvard University, her alma mater, of school president Larry Bacow.
Her reading at Biden’s inauguration continued a tradition for Democratic presidents — that includes such celebrated poets as Robert Frost and Maya Angelou. The latter’s “On the Pulse of Morning,” written for the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton, went on to sell more than 1 million copies when published in book form.
Recent readers include poets Elizabeth Alexander and Richard Blanco, both of whom Gorman has been in touch with.
“The three of us are together in mind, body and spirit,” she says.
Gorman is the youngest inaugural poet in memory, and she has made news before. In 2014, she was named the first Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, and three years later she became the country’s first National Youth Poet Laureate.
She has appeared on MTV; written a tribute to Black athletes for Nike; published her first book, “The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough,” as a teenager, and has a two-book deal with Viking Children’s Books. The first work, the picture book “Change Sings,” comes out later this year.
Gorman says she was contacted late last month by the Biden inaugural committee. She has known numerous public figures, including former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former first lady Michelle Obama, but says she will be meeting the Bidens for the first time. The Bidens, apparently, have been aware of her: Gorman says the inaugural officials told her she had been recommended by the incoming first lady, Jill Biden.
In her poem, that runs about 6 minutes, she was encouraged to emphasize unity and hope over “denigrating anyone.”
The siege last week of the U.S. Capitol by President Trump supporters seeking to overturn the election was a challenge for keeping a positive tone, but also an inspiration.
“That day gave me a second wave of energy to finish the poem,” Gorman says. “The poem isn’t blind. It isn’t turning your back to the evidence of discord and division.”
Gorman has rare status as a poet, and has dreams of other ceremonies. She would love to read at the 2028 Olympics, scheduled to be held in Los Angeles, and in 2037 wouldn’t mind finding herself in an even more special position at the presidential inauguration — as the new chief executive.
“I’m going to tell Biden that I’ll be back,” she said with a laugh.
The Associated Press contributed to this article: all reporting by Hillel Italie/AP National Writer.