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Inaugural poet Amanda Gorman inspires community of poets nationwide

When Phyllis Meshulam gets chilly at her home in Sebastopol, she often dons her Analy High School sweatshirt, a gift from one of her two daughters. On the back of this “hand-me-up” is a tiger, the sight of which prompts Meshulam to recite verses from William Blake’s poem, “The Tiger.”

The daughter of a Blake scholar, Meshulam is the poet laureate of Sonoma County, a distinction awarded every two years by the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. On Thursday, Meshulam, along with the rest of the poetry community, in this county and across the country, remained spellbound and awestruck by a performance they’d witnessed the day before in Washington, D.C.

The penultimate performer at the inauguration of President Joe Biden was Amanda Gorman, the 22-year-old, Harvard-educated daughter of a single mother from Los Angeles. Her 6-minute prose poem, “The Hill We Climb,” electrified her audience and burned brighter, to borrow from Blake, than any of the songs or speeches that day.

Like Biden, Gorman has overcome a speech impediment; like Biden, she’s wanted to be the president since she was very young. Indeed, she has repeatedly stated she intends to run for that office in 2032. Her performance on Wednesday earned plaudits, in person and on social media, from luminaries ranging from Barack and Michele Obama to “Hamilton” composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose lyrics she sampled twice in her poem.

“It was just fantastic,” said Meshulam, who was deeply impressed by Gorman’s use of rhyme, alliteration and “beautiful wordplay” on display throughout the work. She mentioned, in particular, these verses:

“If we're to live up to our own time, then victory won't lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we've made.

That is the promise to glade the hill we climb.

If only we dare it's because being American is more than a pride we inherit.

It's the past we step into and how we repair it.

We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.

We've seen a force that would shatter our nation, rather than share it.“

Meshulam was wowed, likewise, by the artist’s ability to amplify and underscore the main theme of the inauguration: the healing and uniting of a nation — a daunting task, as the poem’s title suggests.

“’The Hill We Climb’ — it reminds me of Dr. Martin Luther King and his mountaintop,” said Meshulam, who has her own challenge, as Sonoma County’s poet laureate: to raise the profile of poetry, which has far less buzz in the country than it did, say, a century ago. “Back then,” Meshulam said, “Edna St. Vincent Millay was like a rock star.”

When a charismatic, confident young poet stands before an international television audience and knocks it out of the park, that job becomes much easier.

“She just rocked it for the whole nation, and people were totally moved,” said Meg Hamill, executive director of California Poets In The Schools, a program which puts published poets in classrooms across the state.

“We have so many young people in the program” — between 20,000 and 25,000 a year, said Hamill of Santa Rosa — “and when they see someone with a national platform, at such a historic moment, it’s so empowering.”

It tells the students, she said, “that being a poet is something important in the world, that people can be moved by your words, and real change can come about, just from being a poet.”

When Gorman was 14, she participated in a Saturday poetry workshop, affiliated with California Poets In The Schools. She was recruited to that class by Los Angeles poet and teacher India Radfar. While Gorman had finished a novel by the time she was 12, Radfar recalled, the teenager hadn’t written much poetry.

Even though she was younger, by a year or two, than the other students in the class — many of whom were very gifted in their own right, Radfar said — “Amanda stepped in fresh and was just, excellent from the get-go.

“She was already just light years beyond everybody else in determination, ability, concentration. Already, at the age of 14, she was more like an adult.”

That makes the preternatural poise she displayed, at the lectern in front of the U.S. Capitol Wednesday, easier to understand.

Maya Khosla, who preceded Meshulam as Sonoma County poet laureate, was transported by the “musicality” of Gorman’s verses, which “take us along for a ride.”

The poet was gifted, she said, with a “butterfly-like quality.” Did that mean Gorman’s deft gesticulations reminded her of Muhammad Ali?

Not exactly, Khosla said, who then mentioned the theory that the mere flapping of a butterfly’s wings can create a tiny disturbance which, weeks later, results in a storm.

With something as modest as a poem, she said, Gorman created a sensation, “all with the power of her lyrics, her song.”

Watch Gorman perform at Biden’s inauguration here:

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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