Healthy Mind

Amanda Gorman’s Inauguration Poem Captivated Its Audience—Here’s Why

Kara Jillian Brown

Photo: Getty Images / Rob Carr / Staff / W+G Creative
When Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman stepped up to the microphone at the inauguration of Joe Biden, she put the country under her spell for a full six minutes. As she recited her poem, "The Hill We Climb," with themes of democracy, unity, and hope, her words captured feelings and brought them to life by speaking to the reality of where the nation finds itself at the present moment. The poem stirred emotions throughout the world because it centered on communal feelings, says Tracie Morris, PhD, professor of poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

"The poem reminded me of that tradition of poetry, the ancient tradition of poetry. Before books, and prizes, and workshops, and comfortable jobs, and Ivy League schools, and all of those things," says Dr. Morris, who met Gorman at a virtual event last month. "The poet was the community member who gave us a sense of ourselves. That's the beginning of poetry. And Amanda Gorman was very much in that tradition."

Poetry and our emotions play off of one another, says Diana Raab, PhD, a research psychologist who writes and teaches about writing for healing and transformation. It’s the voice of our hearts and souls.

"Good poetry is emotional because it speaks from the heart rather than from the mind," says Dr. Raab. "For the listener or reader, the best poetry inspires us to reflect, dream, reminisce, observe, and even fantasize. Poetry can unite us and it encourages a sense of interconnectedness. It can help establish a sense of community. Poems can help us feel as if we’re part of a larger picture and not just living in our isolated worlds."

But it's not just what Gorman said, but how she said it that made it so magnetizing.

"It's not just the words, it's the words in relationship to others, and to the human body, to our sense of feeling well," says Dr. Morris. "The sense that that movement, that dynamism comes to a conclusion—that makes us feel satisfied at the end, which has a lot to do with what poetry does. That sense of we've arrived here together, we've climbed together, that is absolutely heartfelt on her part, I feel, but also technical."

Dr. Morris classifies Gorman's poem as a free verse poem with internal rhyme. "The kind [of poetry] that Amanda read is moved by the rhythm of the words, the accessibility of the words, and the rhyme," says Dr. Morris. "It didn't fall on a traditional end rhyme scheme, when the last word in each line rhymes or every other last word rhymes. This one was much more focused on the internal rhyme, how the rhyme was working within a line. And the development of that technique has always been around in poetry, but it very much was heightened by hip hop."

Internal rhyme is what makes the lyrics from Lin-Manual Miranda's Broadway hit Hamilton so infectious, Dr. Morris says. It creates momentum that pushes the listener forward.

"We feel like we're going with the poet on this journey and it takes our heart with her and with everyone else," she says. "We're in it together, but not in a way that's so predictable that we kind of can check out. The internal rhyme and the variety of it makes us aware and interested, and it keeps us going."

Dr. Morris couldn't help but be moved upon hearing the influence of hip hop within a poem recited at the inauguration of an American president. It demonstrates that while we have so far to go in terms of racial equality, progress is being made.

"This Harvard-educated, composed, young Black woman, speaking at the inauguration, has been influenced by a community that has historically been marginalized," says Dr. Morris. "And people say, 'Well, that's a beautiful poem.'"

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