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At the Inauguration, Amanda Gorman Wove History and the Future Into a Stirring Melody

Gorman’s lines aren’t like Miranda’s, exactly. He packs more rhymes into his couplets, sometimes five or six in a line. He’s spoken in praise of his “polysyllabic rhyming heroes,” the rappers Rakim, Big Pun and Eminem.

Like Miranda, Gorman reminds us that, as Nicholson Baker put it in his poetry-mad novel “The Anthologist,” hip-hop is our light verse. It’s musically and metrically alive. There were moments when one could imagine one of Miranda’s characters onstage, declaiming Gorman’s work:

being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it.

Those last lines are a reminder of how difficult her assignment was, delivering a poem to a nation still shaken by the attempted takeover of its Capitol by a raging mob of deluded souls. In her darkest moments, while writing her poem, Gorman must have felt she was trying to make a bisque from a carcass.

In his memoir “Mo’ Meta Blues,” Questlove wrote that Public Enemy’s music and lyrics drove him to read American history. In “Between the World and Me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates remarked that a real education happens “three call slips at a time.” It’s easy to imagine young people filing into libraries because of Gorman’s poem.

Few things seem more stale than last season’s “occasion” poems. You imagine old ones laid out in forgotten display cases, nibbled by silverfish. Gorman’s was more alive, for a moment, than most.

No Republican president-elect has had a poem read at his inauguration. The first poet to read at one was Robert Frost. He composed a poem called “Dedication” to read at John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration.

Its first three lines were noble in sentiment:

Summoning artists to participate
In the august occasions of the state
Seems something artists ought to celebrate.

Frost never got to read “Dedication.” High wind and strong sun made him unable to decipher the poem, and instead he declaimed his poem “The Gift Outright” from memory.

Frost died in 1963, at 88. Less than a month before his own death, Kennedy appeared at the groundbreaking, at Amherst College, of the Robert Frost Library.

Kennedy could have been speaking about Gorman when he said: “When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”

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