How to Listen Like
How to listen like Amanda Gorman
October 29, 2021
October 29, 2021
For there is always light,
if only we're brave enough to see it.
If only we're brave enough to be it.
And with those words, the world took notice of the powerhouse that is Amanda Gorman. Millions listened as she recited her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s inauguration. Her powerful words have resonated with many across this country.
You’d never know it while listening to Gorman, but she was diagnosed with an auditory processing disorder in kindergarten and has struggled with speech articulation throughout her life. The disorder makes it difficult for her to accurately pronounce and hear certain sounds. It’s as if her ears and brain don’t fully coordinate.
“So for, most of my life, until two or maybe three years ago, I couldn’t say the letter ‘r.’ Even to this day sometimes I struggle with it,” Gorman shared. Her fun solution? Listening to the Broadway musical Hamilton. “I would listen to the song, ‘Aaron Burr, Sir,’ which is just packed with r’s … I would say, ‘if I can train myself to do this song, then I can train myself to say this letter.’ And so that has been a huge part of my own speech pathology. It’s why I included it [a Hamilton reference] in the inaugural poem.”
Gorman was following in the footsteps of other renowned poets who have spoken at presidential inaugurations, including her own personal favorite Maya Angelou. Like Gorman, Angelou struggled with speech issues when she was growing up.
"Maya Angelou was mute growing up as a child and she grew up to deliver the inaugural poem for President Bill Clinton," Gorman said. "So I think there is a real history of orators who have had to struggle with a type of imposed voicelessness, you know, having that stage in the inauguration."
Credit: Naima Green
For while we have our eyes on the future,
history has its eyes on us.
Gorman was probably the first presidential inauguration poet to actually reference a Hamilton song called “History Has Its Eyes on You” in her poem “The Hill We Climb.” This was an achievement in a long line of ‘firsts’ for Gorman. At age 22, she was the youngest poet to read at a presidential inauguration. At age 19, she was named the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate of the United States of America.
As the National Youth Laureate, Gorman was excited to use her own young age to connect with other young people across the country. She shared, “I’m very excited to help show young people that they belong in a literary world which sometimes might exclude them for their age, gender, race, etc. It always means so much to me when I can be part of the process of one student realizing their powerful, poetic voice...”
And even after she completed her year as the National Youth Laureate, she continued to have a two-way conversation with America’s youth by not only giving advice, but listening for it as well. In a TIME magazine interview, Michelle Obama asked Gorman, “Do you have any advice for young girls, and Black girls in particular, who earn their way into the spotlight?” Gorman replied, “My question is do they have any advice for me. I’m new to this, so I’m still learning…”
Today we honor our three captains
For their actions and impact in
A time of uncertainty and need.
In another of Amanda’s firsts, she was the first poet to recite a poem at a Super Bowl. At this year’s game, her poem "Chorus of the Captains" introduced three honorary captains: educator Trimaine Davis, nurse manager Suzie Dorner, and veteran James Martin. Gorman told Trevor Noah on "The Daily Show", “These are the moments I strive for in my lifetime, which is to bring poetry into places that we least expect it, so we can fully kind of grapple with the ways in which it can heal us and kind of resurrect us.”
Gorman perhaps viewed the Super Bowl as a way to use poetry to bring the country together. So we can better listen and learn from each other. Ahead of the Super Bowl, Amanda tweeted: “Poetry at the Super Bowl is a feat for art and our country, because it means we’re thinking imaginatively about human connection even when we feel siloed. I’ll honor three heroes who exemplify the best of this effort. Here’s to them, to poetry, and to a #SuperBowl like no other.”
Maybe Gorman took her cues from another woman who was also having a first at this year’s Super Bowl. Sarah Thomas was making history too as the first woman to ever officiate in a Super Bowl.
On the corner of East 92nd and Lexington
Under congested incandescence of pulsing city
the world bends itself into a village.
Here: our great gathering place.
In 2013, Gorman saw the Pakistani activist and Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai speak. Gorman was moved to become a United Nations Youth Delegate at the age of 16. “It really opened my eyes to the possibilities of what I could accomplish,” she said. In 2017, Gorman performed her poem “The Gathering Place” at the UN’s Social Good Summit. Inspired by the summit itself, Gorman's poem touched on themes like community, innovation, and hope.
Activism has been an ongoing theme throughout Gorman’s life. Her single mother raised Amanda and her two siblings in Los Angeles through a social justice lens. At her predominantly white, private high school, Gorman and her twin sister protested the lack of diversity in their English class syllabus. As a teen, Amanda founded her nonprofit, One Pen, One Page, with the goal of instilling writing and leadership skills in youth.
Gorman feels that “Being a poet and an activist are interwoven identities for me. I write to advocate; I advocate to give myself purpose and meaning for writing.” One of those advocacy poems was “This Place (An American Lyric)” that she wrote in the wake of the white supremacist “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville. Gorman read the poem in 2017 at a Library of Congress event. It was listened to by the audience including future-first-lady Dr. Jill Biden. And three years later, Dr. Biden remembered listening to that poet and recommended her for the inauguration.
How would we read the Harvard arms,
If we took another look?
The letters of veritas,
Three open books,
Like eight simple seeds?
The OZY Genius Awards give grants of up to $10,000 to college-age students to bring their genius ideas to life. The awards aim to support the next Albert Einstein, Mark Zuckerberg, or Oprah Winfrey. Gorman’s winning idea was Generation Empathy which aimed to create a more empathic and inclusive community through virtual reality. She won in 2017 while she was a student at Harvard.
Amanda wanted to create a virtual reality experience that showed the lives of young active individuals. She shared, “We have these phenomenal change-makers who have these really incredible microphones to talk about society’s problems — what I want to do is highlight the lesser-known ones who are putting themselves on the line and taking risks for what they believe in. If you can give that kind of experience — of paying witness and homage to a teen to inspire another one — you can have that domino effect. And if you can instigate that through virtual reality, which is boundless in geography, the limits are endless.”
Gorman believes that she is a part of a new type of genius and she understands the importance of listening to others in order to generate ideas. “Being at Harvard, I get to see what different types of people can bring to the table …That’s been making me reflect on what I can contribute to society and academia, in terms of a unique type of genius that is a critical thinker. I’m a dreamer and I tend to have ideas that can bring two different sides of an argument together.”
There have been many studies about how listening to poetry impacts us and our brains by rousing our emotions and elevating our souls. Philip Davis, a professor at the University of Liverpool, found that “The same mental skills that we exercise in struggling to understand T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock " — i.e., flexible thinking and the ability to ponder multiple meanings — also help us to navigate unpredictable events and make choices in our everyday lives.”
And one day, it may be Amanda Gorman who will be listening to her own poetry to navigate those unpredictable events, as leader of the United States. She has shared many times that one day she plans to run for president herself. We wonder if she will be her own poet at her inauguration.
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