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American National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman
Photo by Danny Williams

My Poetry Corner January 2022 features the poem “The Miracle of Morning” from the poetry collection Call Us What We Carry: Poems (Penguin Random House, 2021) by African American poet Amanda Gorman, the youngest presidential inaugural poet in U.S. history. Born in 1998 in Los Angeles, California, she has an older brother and a twin sister. They were all raised by their single mother, a sixth grade English teacher at an inner-city public school. Born prematurely, the twins were diagnosed with a speech and auditory impediment. Some words, particularly those with an “r” sound, were hard for Gorman.

In a December 2021 interview, Gorman told Clint Smith of The Atlantic that it wasn’t until she was six or seven years old that she became aware of her speech impediment. “I was in and out of speech therapy for most of my life,” she said. “And what that did for me was force me to look at language, sounds, cadence, pronunciation actually as an access point of healing and recovery, because I was doing the work of learning English time and time again.”

Gorman started writing children’s stories from about age five. Her interest in poetry began in third grade. She found her voice as a young poet through working with WriteGirl, a Los Angeles based non-profit that assists teen girls to discover the power of their voice through writing. At sixteen years old, she became the 2014 Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles. The following year, she published her first book of poems, The One for Whom Food is Not Enough (Urban World LA, 2015).

After graduating from a private K-12 school in Santa Monica in 2016, Gorman went on to study at Harvard University in Massachusetts, made possible with a scholarship from the Milken Family Foundation. As an undergraduate, she founded One Pen One Page, a non-profit organization that encourages youth advocacy, leadership development and offers poetry workshops for under-served youth. In 2017, Urban World named her the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate. She graduated cum laude with a B.A. in sociology from Harvard in 2020 and now lives in her hometown of Los Angeles.

Gorman’s performance of her poem “The Hill We Climb” at the 2021 Presidential Inauguration received critical acclaim and international attention. Before the year ended, she had three books published by Penguin Random House: the special edition of her inaugural poem (March 2021); her children’s picture book Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem (September 2021); and Call Us What We Carry: Poems (December 2021).

The poems in Call Us What We Carry address the ways in which the coronavirus pandemic has reshaped our lives and aggravated our societal divisions in a world where the climate crisis looms over us.

The poem “Fugue” speaks of our social anxieties and losses: Anxiety is a living body, / Poised beside us like a shadow. / It is the last creature standing, / The only beast who loves us / Enough to stay. […] Even now handshakes & hugs are like gifts, / Something we are shocked to grant, be granted….

The title poem “Call Us” reminds us that our bodies is A boat of a being, carrying the human microbiome in all the writhing forms on / & inside this body / Drafted under our life. / We are not me – / We are we. / Call us / What we carry. But we carry so much more. It took us losing ourselves, she writes “In the Deep,” To see we require no kingdom / But this kinship. For what we craved most during these months of isolation Was only all that we have ever loved.

In the long poem “Cordage, or Atonement,” we must confront the reality that Lasting meant being separate / Together, proximate in our distance. / To be a part of the living, / We had to be apart from it, / Alive but alone. / It was death by survival. In closing, we are called to take back our lives.

What a marvelous wreck are we.
We press out of our cold
& separate crouching.
Like a vine sprung overnight,
We were reaching & wretched
Upon this mortal soil
& even so we are undiminished.
If just for this newborn day,
Let us take back our lives.

While we were held captive by COVID-19, the poem “Captive” recalls: The animals flooded our streets / Demanding answers or food, / Here to take back / What was theirs. / We were swept up by an unsung / Need for nature… Yet, what poor stewards we have been of the gifts of Mother Nature. In “Alarum,” the poet acknowledges that as the daughter of a / dying world / as its new-faced alert. […] To put it plain / we have shipwrecked the earth / soiled the soil / & run the ground aground. / Listen. We are the loud toll / on this planet…

The featured poem “The Miracle of Morning” celebrates the end of our isolation. In California, Gorman’s home state, that glorious day was June 15, 2021, after fifteen months of lockdown. For those of us who were not essential workers, braving daily exposure to our deadly foe, we were anxious to take our lives back. In the first of nine stanzas, the poet describes the miracle of that golden morning.

We thought we’d awaken to a world in mourning.
Heavy clouds crowding, a society storming.
But there’s something different on this golden morning.
Something magical in the sunlight, wide & warming.

The second and third stanzas speak of the neighborhood street coming to life, of the connection between neighbors. The poet believes that this connection will sustain us. The question, she posits, is how we will weather this unknown together. The two-line fourth stanza sums up a hopeful vision:

So, on this meaningful morn, we mourn & we mend.
Like light, we can’t be broken, even when we bend.

The sixth stanza calls us to use our loss and suffering to find solidarity.

We ignite not in the light, but in lack thereof,
For it is in loss that we truly learn to love.
In this chaos, we will discover clarity.
In suffering, we must find solidarity.

How we face each new morning, especially now that the Omicron variant has resulted in a new surge in infections, will determine how our collective fight ends. Will we become the best of beings as our young poet envisages?  

To read the complete featured poem, “The Miracle of Morning,” and learn more about the work of the American National Youth Laureate poet Amanda Gorman, go to my Poetry Corner January 2022.