How Amanda Gorman created a modern-day renaissance for performance poetry

On the brink of the publication of The Hill We Climb, performance poet Sophia Thakur reflects on the potency of Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem.

Sophia Thakur
A photograph of Amanda Gorman reading at the inauguration
Amanda Gorman reading at the inauguration. Image: Getty

I imagined a Gogglebox screen, staring into the homes of poets across the globe at their childish grinning faces tucked into tired-of-writing-to-nobody palms. Elbows nestling into knees to the rhythm of Amanda Gorman. Finally, poets could exhale away the years of waiting that had pulled so many of them away from their pages. Finally, poetry will be seen again. Felt. Recognised as the delightful postcard into humanity’s moral imagination.

It wasn’t just what Gorman was saying. It was the very fact that she was performing it. A poet was a highlight of the inauguration of change. A young, Black, female poet was the unshaking, undeniable voice of transition into the new day that the whole world had been sat in the dark waiting for like Christmas morning.

This was a modern-day renaissance. Writers everywhere stepped back into their mouths, liberated the silent corners of their hearts and let history happen once again in the safety of hope. The world could breathe again. We could write again. In the loss of anxiety that left with Trump, space was made for possibilities to potentialise. A poem, a poet did that. Hats off, clicking fingers, a round of applause for this moment in history.

'Amanda has ignited a silent revolution in me to step back into my stories'

Poetry was finally invited back to the table to talk. After being left at the bottom of school backpacks, put in a box on a shelf that might as well be in the sky and forgotten about by the vast majority of people, a place setting was made again for the prodigal poet who actually always meant well.

The curriculum was where poetry went to die. To turn into a science. To be amputated from its soul and studied like a maths equation. To have its eulogy written in predicted text instead of felt in braille. The curriculum, in its inherent desire to limit life to wrongs and rights, failed to understand that the power of poetry never lived in how deeply it could be understood, but instead in how transformative it can be when felt. If you study a mountain for how it breaks ground, you’ll never experience the glory of its peak. Sure, it’s easier to unpick something into metaphors, punctuation, assonance and form to control it - but it’s much harder and far more rewarding to walk into a poem naked and let it present itself to you.

This is why I have always loved performance poetry. It recognises the human tendency to unravel everything and decides to claim autonomy over how it will be received. It performs everything you need to know directly to you. It revokes access to surgery and says, “I am a poem, I am whole, and this is exactly what I mean”.

I used to refuse to put my poetry on Soundcloud, in fear that in the stripping away of my body’s performance, the poem would not be felt as it should. The page was a hill I had no intention of climbing until a juicy book deal landed on my lap. There is something about being able to wear a poem, about giving a line an arm gesture, or a phrase some volume, or a punchline the perfect face to go with it, that felt like I was giving my words the best chance of flight.

The thought of trusting just the sound of my voice - or worse yet, the words alone on paper - was terrifying and felt entirely unnecessary until I learned the lesson that all performance poets have to learn at some stage of their blissful pursuit of a poet's life: Spoken Word’s glass ceiling. The one they don’t tell you about while you’re moving to New York to pursue a bigger life. The ceiling that reminds you of how many rooms have no interest in inviting in poetry, let alone spoken word. It’s definitely transforming now, and I trust that spoken word at one of the most-anticipated inaugurations in history will have shattered any glass ceilings that were left after Beyonce started showcasing the art form for what it stands to be once given a chance to break out of the jazz bar’s basement.

Amanda Gorman's The Hill We Climb is exactly what she performed it as: hope epitomised. I trust that even if the world's finest mechanics were to turn the anatomy of her performance inside out, they would only stand to discover more layers of faith, freedom and poetic finesse. As a Black, female, spoken word artist myself, Amanda has ignited a silent revolution in me, to step back into my stories and pull them from my lips like a song. Because now, we share the same stages.

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