Amanda Gorman’s poetry was beamed into the households of millions of people on Sunday, when she performed an original piece at Super Bowl LV. And though her presence was historic—Gorman described herself as “the first poet to perform” at the sporting event—her performance follows a long tradition of lyrical storytelling, as any halftime performer would tell you.
“Amanda Gorman is demystifying the genre and making it more accessible,” says Eunsong Kim, assistant professor of English at Northeastern, “but that love of language has never disappeared in our culture.”
Gorman, the country’s first National Youth Poet Laureate, became a household name after her performance during Joe Biden’s inauguration. On Sunday, she recited an original poem before kickoff that honored three Americans for their work during the COVID-19 pandemic.
By appearing at an event that isn’t usually associated with poetry, Kim says, Gorman is helping to divorce poetry from its traditional literary and academic gatekeepers, and making it available to a wider audience.
Kim likens Gorman to other contemporary poets such as Rupi Kaur, who rocketed to fame after sharing short, visual poems on Instagram and Tumblr. Their work is accessible—and exciting—because it isn’t confined by a rigid, academic
definition of what counts as poetry, she says.
“Poetry exists on TikTok, it exists in rap lyrics—the lyrical genre has never disappeared, and music is proof of that,” she says. “When we think about the older tradition of poetry, it was work that people memorized and knew. How many songs do we know the lyrics to? That is also poetry.”
Chinma Nnadozie-Okananwa, a third-year student studying English and law and public policy, says she’s ready for poetry’s image to change.
“Introducing new audiences to poetry is always a good thing,” she says. “I’m constantly trying to convince my friends that poets aren’t just sitting in circles, chanting Shakespeare,” she adds with a laugh.
Indeed, Nnadozie-Okananwa says, poetry is the language of imagery; a chance to imagine new ideas and ways of being altogether.
A poet herself, Kim describes the form in a similar way.
“As someone who teaches contemporary poetry, I get to see that people forget how exciting it can be,” she says. “It’s the experience of hearing and reading language that is like everyday language but slightly parallel, slightly different.”
Kim defines poetry as “experimental language,” a genre that encourages “things being dreamed up,” she says.
Gorman’s Inauguration Day poem, “The Hill We Climb,” was well received: Two of her books occupied the top two spots on Amazon during the week following her recitation at the inauguration. Kim says listeners likely responded to language that “felt like possibilities being offered.
Gorman situated herself as the speaker when she described a nation “where a skinny Black girl/ descended from slaves and raised by a single mother/ can dream of becoming president/ only to find herself reciting for one.”
“It was refreshing to hear a Black woman speak about her lived experience, and to hopefully hear from more people who have different lived experiences, after an administration that was so dominated by one man’s voice,” Nnadozie-Okananwa says.
Gorman brought her own experience into the wider context of the U.S. The very next line of the poem widened the scope to include everyone listening: “And yes we are far from polished,” she said.
“It was an invitation for the audience to include itself in the piece,” Kim says.