GVSU poet: While captivating an audience, Amanda Gorman also met towering literary expectations unique to inaugural poems

The poem read by Amanda Gorman during the inauguration for President Joe Biden that is being hailed as a triumph was more than a poem for the ages, a Grand Valley expert said.

It was an inaugural poem, part of a specific genre with relatively few works but an enormous task of rising to the occasion by capturing sweeping themes in a literary form that generally has a more intimate nature, said Amorak Huey, associate professor of writing and a widely published poet.

"Writing an inaugural poem is a really difficult task," Huey said. "The language has to be elevated and it has to be inspiring and it has to be big and expansive and American.

"But it also has to be a poem."

Amorak Huey
Amorak Huey, associate professor of writing

In writing "The Hill We Climb," Gorman needed to create a piece that stands the test of time — a critical component of an inaugural poem — amid a particularly politically fraught era, Huey noted. Gorman has said in interviews that the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol inspired part of her poem.

Only a few presidents have included a poem at their inauguration, starting with one from Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy's. From that small group, even fewer poems are memorable because they are hard to do, Huey said.

Maya Angelou's "On the Pulse of Morning" at Bill Clinton's first inauguration is iconic. Huey also regards Richard Blanco's "One Today" at Barack Obama's second inauguration as a memorable inaugural poem.

He said he was moved by Gorman's poem. Noting her expressive hand movements throughout, he said this was a poem written to be performed, with a musical quality to its pacing.

Huey said one passage in particular resonated with him, one that he thinks he'll always ponder: 

"It's because being American is more than a pride we inherit,

it's the past we step into

and how we repair it"


Amanda Gorman
Reading at the Library of Congress
Image Credit: S L O W K I N G

By their very nature, poems have a unique yet powerful way of conveying information because of the artful language, Huey said.

"Poems are a disruption. If you want to deliver information in the most straightforward way, you don't write a poem," Huey said. "A poem asks that you stop and pay attention in a different way than a letter or a speech or a prayer."

The effectiveness of Gorman's poem at connecting with people goes beyond the words to the moment in which they were delivered and, just as importantly, to Gorman herself, Huey said. Gorman presented her poem with exuberance and with the voice of her life experiences.

 "That's why people were so captivated," Huey said. "With a poem it matters that it’s her."