NEW YORK – Hallie Knight, a high school senior from Jacksonville, Florida, has some well formed ideas about where the country is and how she'd like to see it change.
The 17-year-old has won a contest organized by the Academy of American Poets for which students under 18 wrote their own inaugural poems in anticipation of Wednesday's swearing in of President-elect Joe Biden. Applicants for the Inaugural Poem Project were urged to submit work that reflects “on the country’s challenges, strengths, and hope for its future," according to the guidelines.
Knight says she "wanted to acknowledge the greatness of the potential for our country at this present moment, and the opportunity we have as citizens to choose what it becomes out of all this chaos.”
Inspired by works ranging from W.H. Auden's “As I Walked Out One Evening” to Adrienne Rich's “Storm Warnings,” Knight crafted a piece called “To Rebuild” that likens the U.S. to a house that has been severely but not hopelessly damaged.
The work is not complete until
The walls protect all who live there,
No exceptions. Abandonment of all
Knight will receive $1,000, and her work — along with the poems of two runners-up — will be featured on Poets.org and in American Poets magazine.
The official inaugural poem will be read during Wednesday's ceremony by Amanda Gorman, the country’s first Youth Poet Laureate. She is 22, just a few years older than Knight.
“She is proof to people of all ages, but especially those younger than her, that there is no need to wait to make an impact,” Knight says.
A former inaugural poet, Richard Blanco, served as judge for the contest finalists. Blanco said he was impressed by Knight's imagery, likening it to Abraham Lincoln’s famous warning that a “house divided against itself cannot stand.” He added that he was taken by the level of craft Knight and others demonstrated, and by their remarkably unbroken idealism.
“Even after everything we've been through the past few years, they're not giving up," says Blanco, who read at the 2013 inaugural of President Barack Obama. “We don't want to sugarcoat what's going on and be a Hallmark kind of poem. We're looking for that balance of truth and hope.”
Mina King, a 17-year-old from Shreveport, Louisiana, came in second for “In Pursuit of Dawn," in which she wove in the common American theme of rising from poverty.
My stepfather created opportunity
from the destitute nothing he was dealt,
consoled only by the American dream
that came as whispers under snow-dappled stars.
And from these muffled mumblings
he bettered his situation.
The third-place finisher is just 12 years old: Gabrielle Marshall, from Richmond, Virginia. Her “The Power of Hope” acknowledged the country’s profound divisions, and possibilities:
Today’s hope is peering
the lingering barrier,
but still recognizing the diversity in ourselves.