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Illinois’ top poet on Amanda Gorman: ‘Breathtakingly stunning’ — ‘I’d be proud to have a granddaughter like her’

The youngest poet to speak at an inauguration, Gorman delivered her poem “The Hill We Climb,” which touched on the themes of unity and healing Biden and others alluded to in their own speeches during the inauguration.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman speaks at the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. During today’s inauguration ceremony Joe Biden becomes the 46th president of the United States. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775612666
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman speaks at the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. During today’s inauguration ceremony Joe Biden becomes the 46th president of the United States. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775612666
Rob Carr, Getty

Following in the footsteps of Maya Angelou and Robert Frost, Amanda Gorman wrote her way into history Wednesday with her performance at the inauguration of President Joe Biden.

Unlike Frost — who was 86 when he became the first poet to speak at the presidential inaugural in 1961 — or Angelou, who was 64 when she spoke at the 1993 inaugural, Gorman is just 22 — the youngest poet to speak at a presidential inauguration.

“It was so rich and just so filled with truth,” Illinois poet laureate Angela Jackson told the Chicago Sun-Times after watching Gorman on television. “I was stunned that she was so young and so wise.”

Illinois Poet Laureate Angela Jackson
Illinois Poet Laureate Angela Jackson
Provided photo courtesy of Betty J. Jackson Uzzell

Gorman became the nation’s first youth poet laureate, a title bestowed upon her in 2017.

At Wednesday’s inauguration, the Los Angeles native delivered her poem “The Hill We Climb,” which touched on the themes of unity and healing Biden and others alluded to in their own speeches during the inauguration.

“We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it, would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy,” Gorman’s poem reads in part. “And this effort very nearly succeeded, but while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated. In this truth, in this faith, we trust. For while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us.”

Gorman has said she was near finishing the work when the mobs stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. She is only the sixth poet to participate in a presidential inaugural ceremony.

For Jackson, Gorman is a welcome member to that select club.

“I think her use of language was dazzling and the passion of her words — the passion behind her words — and the insights [were captivating],” Jackson said.

Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman speaks at the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday.
Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman speaks at the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Jackson, an award-winning poet, novelist and playwright, grew up on Chicago’s South Side and was appointed poet laureate of the state last November by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, making her the fifth Illinoisan to hold the honorary position.

President John F. Kennedy sits with first lady Jacqueline Kennedy as poet Robert Frost, right, and Pearl Buck, left, exchange greetings in the East Room of the White House in 1962. A year earlier, Frost spoke at President Kennedy’s inaugural.
President John F. Kennedy sits with first lady Jacqueline Kennedy as poet Robert Frost, right, and Pearl Buck, left, exchange greetings in the East Room of the White House in 1962. A year earlier, Frost spoke at President Kennedy’s inaugural.
AP file

Asked her age, Jackson laughed and said “I’m not 22. ... I’m old enough to be [Gorman’s] grandmother — and I’d be proud to have a granddaughter like her.”

“She’s an excellent poet — she carries on the poetic tradition,” Jackson said, adding that Gorman and other new poets are doing “interesting things with rhyme” that Jackson said she has to study.

“What was amazing to me was that the rhyme was not forced, it flowed so effortlessly from the poem,” Jackson said. “She was breathtakingly stunning, and I was just so proud.”

President Bill Clinton presents writer Maya Angelou with a National Medal of Arts in 2000. Angelou read one of her poems at Clinton’s 1993 inauguration.
Rick Bowmer/AP file

A recent graduate from Harvard, Gorman told NPR she had a speech impediment as a child, like the newly inaugurated president. Her own impediment made pronouncing certain sounds difficult. Biden had a stutter.

She drew the attention of now first lady Jill Biden with her 2017 delivery of “In This Place: An American Lyric” at the Library of Congress, and Biden contacted her last month to ask her to write, and perform, a poem for the inauguration, according to Vogue.

Along with the first lady, Gorman can also call Oprah Winfrey a fan.

The longtime talk show host and TV producer, who was also friends with Angelou, gifted Gorman a ring bearing a caged bird to wear on Wednesday, a nod to Angelou’s autobiography “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.”