“Let us walk with these warriors, charge on with these champions, and carry forth the call of our captains,” Gorman said. “We celebrate them by acting with courage and compassion, by doing what is right and just, for while we honor them today, it is they who every day honor us.”
Her talent is undeniable. Her charm, incontrovertible. (She famously left CNN’s Anderson Cooper speechless in an interview.) And her star power? Sudden, and staggering.
Gorman, who at 22 is the youngest-ever inaugural poet, has graced the cover of Time magazine — interviewed by no less than the nation’s first Black first lady, Michelle Obama — and signed with IMG Models. Her books have climbed to the top of bestseller lists, even though they aren’t yet commercially available. She’s been written about by scores of media outlets and publicly praised by the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Stacey Abrams, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hillary Clinton.
But the Super Bowl?
Toi Derricotte couldn’t believe it at first. The initial response from the award-winning author of several books of poetry and co-founder of Cave Canem, a nonprofit group that cultivates and promotes the work of Black poets, was incredulous: “The Super Bowl?”
But maybe, she said immediately afterward, “it points to a change.”
In many ways, she explained, Gorman, the first-ever national youth poet laureate, has taken an art form that felt inaccessible to some and made it universal. “She seems to have awakened the spirit of poetry the way I think it was intended to be, to be a voice of the people.”
Her inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” completed after the Jan. 6 siege on the Capitol, put language to the trauma of watching an attack on Washington, the seat of government, after a contested election, in the middle of a pandemic.
“We needed someone to tell us what happened and to reflect the experiences that we have not been able to translate into language,” said Jennifer Benka, president and executive director of the Academy of American Poets. “It’s just been too painful.”
And more than that — we needed comfort, mending, a path to move ahead.
“She mapped, in language, a way forward, giving us healing directions that we can repeat to ourselves,” Benka said.
Tracy K. Smith, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and former U.S. poet laureate, concurs.
“She reminded us that the vision of democracy — of liberty, unity and equality — is a dream America has not yet managed to attain. At the same time, she was this beautiful embodiment of the future that is possible for us if we lean on our better instincts,” Smith wrote in an email.
“I also think her poem was capable of meeting listeners where they sat while gently but firmly nudging them a little further toward conscience and conviction. I honestly don’t know of many poets, myself included, who could have done all of that as powerfully as Amanda did.”
Her inaugural poem made her a superstar. And while her rise may seem swift and meteoric, Sharon Marcus, an English and comparative literature professor at Columbia University, says we’re overdue for a poetic mega-idol.
“There have been celebrity poets for a long time. It’s more unusual to not have a celebrity poet — to have long periods of time where there aren’t celebrity poets — than to have celebrity poets,” said Marcus, who is also the author of “The Drama of Celebrity.”
Take Walt Whitman. (“A very celebrated, well-known persona. People knew what he looked like.”) Take Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (“Nobody reads him now. I mean his big poem, ‘Hiawatha,’ is like a nightmare of stereotypes about native peoples,” Marcus said, but he was “known around the world.”)
“The poet has always been this figure of not just writing but speech and rhetoric and oration,” Marcus added, and there have “always been links between poetry and politics.”
So, she wasn’t surprised to hear of Gorman’s Super Bowl performance.
“Poets used to be kind of like rock stars,” she said, and “who performs at the Super Bowl? Rock and pop stars.”
On the subject of musical stars, Salamishah Tillet, an author, professor and contributing critic at large for the New York Times, astutely drew a connection between Gorman and another Black female icon.
“Beyoncé is the only other person who’s had back-to-back performances with a presidential inauguration and then a Super Bowl presentation. So that’s basically where Amanda Gorman is now being placed in a kind of pantheon of great Black women artists and performers,” Tillet said. “And I think she rightly has earned her place there.”
But there’s a caveat. Gorman absolutely deserves her flowers, said Tillet, who is also co-founder of A Long Walk Home Inc., a nonprofit that uses art to end violence against girls and women, but the reverence Gorman’s receiving doesn’t extend to those who resemble her.
“On one hand, her books are being sold out before they’ve come out,” she said. “People are just so blown away by her performance and the way in which she was able to capture the complexity of the American story on that huge platform.”
On the other hand, “we have a 9-year-old black girl being pepper-sprayed in Rochester, New York, by police officers. And so, there’s a way in which the celebration of Amanda Gorman, from many people in America, it doesn’t translate into the recognition or the seeing or the acknowledging of everyday Black girls. They’re like completely different universes.”
The admiration Gorman, poet par excellence, has garnered “doesn’t translate into nurturing and uplifting the Amanda Gormans everywhere,” Tillet added.
In her book on celebrity, Marcus, the professor, argues that “we get the celebrities we deserve.”
Do we deserve Amanda Gorman? Do we deserve a poet whose mantra is, “I’m the daughter of Black writers who are descended from Freedom Fighters who broke their chains and changed the world”?
“I hope we deserve her,” Marcus said. “And I hope that the moment lives up to the promise she gave us.”