National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman recited the poem she wrote titled, "The Hill We Climb," cementing a memorable moment during the ceremony. She summoned images dire and triumphant as she called out to the world "even as we grieved, we grew."
"There is always light, if only we're brave enough to see it -- if only we're brave enough to be it," she recited.
In language referencing Biblical scripture and at times echoing the oratory of John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the 22-year-old 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 very title suggested both labor and transcendence.
"We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
Of such a terrifying hour.
But within it we've found the power
To author a new chapter,
To offer hope and laughter to ourselves."
It was an extraordinary task for Gorman, the youngest by far of the poets who have read at presidential inaugurations since Kennedy invited Robert Frost in 1961, with other predecessors including Maya Angelou and Elizabeth Alexander.
Gorman and her siblings, including a twin sister, were raised near Westchester by a single mother, an English teacher in Watts.
Admiration and praise abounded for the L.A. native. She weaved in the country's past, present and future, including references to the Broadway musical "Hamilton." Composer Lin-Manuel Miranda tweeted: "You were perfect. Perfectly written, perfectly delivered. Every bit of it. Brava. -LLM."
Hillary Clinton, who was present at the inauguration, called the performance "stunning" and hinted at the aspirations of the young poet, which Gorman herself revealed in a 2017 interview with the New York Times.
Gorman told The Associated Press last week that she planned to combine a message of hope for President Joseph Biden's inaugural without ignoring "the evidence of discord and division." She had completed a little more than half of "The Hill We Climb" before Jan. 6 and the siege of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump,
"That day gave me a second wave of energy to finish the poem," Gorman told the AP. She had said that she would not mention Jan. 6 specifically, but her reference was unmistakable:
"We've seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it,
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
It can never be permanently defeated."
Invited to the inaugural late last month by first lady Jill Biden, Gorman has read at official occasions before - including a July 4 celebration when she was backed by the Boston Pops Orchestra. She has also made clear her desire to appear at a future inaugural, in a much greater capacity, an ambition she stated firmly in her poem.
"We, the successors of a country and a time,
Where a skinny black girl,
Descended from slaves and raised by a single mother,
Can dream of becoming president,
Only to find herself reciting for one."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.