DIGITAL ORIGINAL: Amanda Gorman makes history, brings poetry into mainstream culture

Digital Originals

The country’s first National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, made history as the youngest inaugural poet when she recited “The Hill We Climb” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. She made history again when she brought poetry to the Super Bowl this past weekend.

Local poets say Gorman is bringing poetry to new audience members and possibly inspiring others to start reading and writing more of the art form.

After reciting “The Hill We Climb” at Biden’s inauguration in January, Gorman’s popularity skyrocketed. She went from having several thousand Twitter followers to 1.5 million. Her books — “The Hill We Climb and Other Poems” and “Change Sings,” both of which have yet to be released — topped bestseller lists after her performance.

“She’s made it cool to be a poet,” says Lancaster-based poet and educator Le Hinton. Hinton says Gorman’s poetry likely resonates with people because of its honesty.

Jesse Waters, director of the Bowers Writers House at Elizabethtown College, says audiences also connect with her work because it’s timely, understandable and relatable. “She’s really speaking to ideas in her poems that a huge population of people can hear and say, ‘I see myself in those ideas,'” Waters says. “Good poems, I think, tell us things that we know, but kind of forgot we knew,” observes Waters.

Gorman’s inaugural poem was well received, praised on Twitter by many, including former President Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Gorman is not the first person to recite poetry at a presidential inauguration, so Hinton wasn’t surprised to see a poet speak at that event. “However, the Super Bowl’s a different story,” says Hinton.

Sports and the arts may seem like rivals, but this year, Gorman brought poetry to a huge audience of football fans with her piece “Chorus of the Captains.” This past Super Bowl was watched by over 90 million TV viewers. That’s an enormous audience compared to the few dozen people that Hinton says is a good turnout at a typical poetry reading.

Waters provides another perspective: “A 30-second Super Bowl commercial costs $5.5 million. Ms. Gorman’s poem was a minute and 33 seconds. So you’re talking about $16.5 million of invested capital that was put into a poem.”

For comparison, a rare first-edition copy of Edgar Allen Poe’s first book, “Tamerlane and Other Poems,” sold at an auction for $662,500 in 2009 — a record price for a work of American literature. And in 2020, a copy of William Shakespeare’s First Folio sold for nearly $10 million.

Gorman’s work is garnering national attention and bringing poetry into mainstream culture, and Hinton says poetry at the Super Bowl “may mean that poems are going to be read at all sorts of other events.”

Waters says that Gorman’s poems and popularity might help to dispel some stereotypes about poetry.

“It has the opportunity to push away those stereotypes that poems are inaccessible, that poems are laughing at you, that there’s this hidden meaning that’s making fun of you in some way…that poetry is only meant for some kind of very small, isolated, intellectual audience,” says Waters.

And Gorman reminds the “non-poetry-loving public” (as Hinton puts it) that popular and talented poets don’t just come from the past. “Probably across all generations, if you asked [someone] to name a poet, they may name Robert Frost,” who passed away in 1963, “and they wouldn’t be able to name anyone after him,” says Hinton.

“It may be that someone sees her and wonders, ‘Oh wow, she’s new, she’s fresh, I wonder if people have been doing something else between her and Robert Frost,'” Hinton says.

In “The Hill We Climb,” Gorman identifies herself as “a skinny Black girl, descended from slaves.” With this identity, she also reminds audiences that “young African American women have lots and lots and lots of talent,” says Hinton.

Hinton says that people who are already in the poetry world are aware of many Black poets, but others may not be so familiar with them. A quick Google search for “most popular poets” shows lists of predominantly white writers.

One of the few Black poets to make those lists is Maya Angelou. Waters and Hinton say that Angelou is one of a handful of other poets in recent history to have the kind of popularity that Gorman now does.

Angelou recited an inaugural poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at former President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. Gorman paid homage to Angelou with a caged bird ring, which she wore during her inaugural recitation.

Waters wonders how Gorman’s success and popularity may impact the poetry world. “Will more people start reading poetry? Will more people start writing poetry? Will other poets start…writing poems as they’ve seen that Ms. Gorman has written? Other poets who do write in the sort of styles and forms that she does, will people start looking for more of that kind of poetry?” he asks.

Hinton says that Gorman may inspire people to seek out poetry by other authors, and he says she may also motivate them to start writing and sharing their own work. “She’ll be a role model,” he says.

“Somewhere there’s a 13-year-old who’s been scribbling things down and thinking, ‘I’m a poet, but being a poet isn’t cool.’ Then they see her,” says Hinton.

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