Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman takes her place in the Morgan Library

On March 12, 2018, Amanda Gorman, the twenty-year-old Youth Poet Laureate of the United States, visited the Morgan to place a manuscript of her poem “In This Place (An American Lyric)” in a vitrine in the Morgan’s majestic East Room alongside the work of Elizabeth Bishop, Carson McCullers, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Peter Paul Rubens. It is her gift to the Morgan and to all of us. The manuscript includes these words: “There’s a poem in this place— / in the heavy grace, / the lined face of this noble building. . .  .” Amanda wrote those lines about the Library of Congress but they apply equally to the Morgan, with its venerable 1906 Tennessee pink marble building holding thousands of books that comprise, as Amanda puts it, “a palimpsest of time.”

But her poem, which remains on view at the Morgan until July 8, is not just a celebration of venerable libraries. It is a challenge to all of us (including those of us who build and care for collections) not only to consider whose work belongs inside but also to look outside our noble buildings to witness a new American poetry—expressed in chants of protest and in everyday acts of courage, anger, and hope. Echoing Walt Whitman, who told Emerson that “America is not finished, perhaps never will be,” Amanda reminds us that we live in “a nation composed but not yet completed.” Who will write a new American lyric? Who will be, in Whitman’s words, the new “architects of These States”? Going forward, whose work, ideas, power, and very existence will be memorialized in hallowed museums and libraries and in our collective memory?

In September 2017 I learned that Amanda, then age nineteen, had performed “In This Place (An American Lyric)” at the Library of Congress on the occasion of the inaugural reading of Tracy K. Smith, the nation’s 22nd Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. Amanda herself had recently been named the first Youth Poet Laureate of the United States by Urban Word, a literary arts organization that supports powerful young poets with a commitment to artistic excellence and civic engagement. Both Amanda and Smith were introduced that day by Carla Hayden, the country’s 14th Librarian of Congress and the first woman and first African American to hold the position. What an extraordinary trio, together on one important national stage!

I invited Amanda to visit us at the Morgan, and within days she was seated at my desk with my colleagues Carolyn Vega and Michael Reid looking at letters and manuscripts of Gwendolyn Brooks, Elizabeth Bishop, James Baldwin, and Emily Dickinson. We were so bold as to ask if she would donate a manuscript of one her own works to the Morgan’s collection. To our delight, she promised us a fair copy manuscript of the very poem she had composed for the Library of Congress event.

On November 11, 2017, I met Amanda at the Art Museums at Harvard University, where she is currently a sophomore. She removed a notebook (with the words “You Can Do This!” on the cover) from her bag. In it were drafts of poems, notes to herself about her revision strategy, and the fair copy of “In This Place” that she had made for donation to the Morgan. She then extracted a huge pair of scissors from her bag. As a manuscripts curator, I felt some trepidation when I saw those scissors. But then I learned what Amanda had in mind. She made the choice to cut the fair copy manuscript out of her notebook so there would forever be a physical link between the Morgan manuscript, which she had removed, and the record of her composition process, which she retained. We both signed her notebook to mark the moment she had cut out the pages and presented them to me. In a stroke of serendipity, the Harvard Art Museums happened to be displaying a large-format photograph by the contemporary artist Candida Höfer depicting, in spectacular detail, the East Room of the Morgan Library, where Amanda’s manuscript would soon go on view. 

Her poem ends with these lines: “There’s a place where this poem dwells— / it is here, it is now, in the yellow song of dawn’s bell / where we write an American lyric / we are just beginning to tell.” We at the Morgan are honored that Amanda’s manuscript now resides in this place, here, now, and forever, and we look forward to learning from her and the many other youth poets who are, as Amanda writes, poised to rewrite this nation and fill its libraries with stories that demand to be heard.

Christine Nelson is the Morgan’s Drue Heinz Curator of Literary and Historical Manuscripts.

There’s a poem in this place—
in the footfalls in the halls
in the quiet beat of the seats.
It is here, at the curtain of day,
that America writes a lyric
you must whisper to say.

There’s a poem in this place—
in the heavy grace,
the lined face of this noble building,
collections burned and reborn twice.

There’s a poem in Boston’s Copley Square
where protest chants
tear through the air
like sheets of rain,
where love of the many
swallows hatred of the few.

There’s a poem in Charlottesville
where tiki torches string a ring of flame
tight round the wrist of night
where men so white they gleam blue—
seem like statues
where men heap that long wax burning
ever higher
where Heather Heyer
blooms forever in a meadow of resistance.

There’s a poem in the great sleeping giant
of Lake Michigan, defiantly raising
its big blue head to Milwaukee and Chicago—
a poem begun long ago, blazed into frozen soil,
strutting upward and aglow.

There’s a poem in Florida, Puerto Rico, in East Texas
where streets swell into a nexus
of rivers, cows afloat like mottled buoys in the brown,
where courage is now so common
that 23-year-old Jesus Contreras rescues senior citizens from floodwaters.

There’s a poem in Los Angeles
yawning wide as the Pacific tide
where a single mother swelters
in a windowless classroom, teaching
black and brown students in Watts
to spell out their thoughts
so her daughter might write
this poem for you.            

There's a poem in California
where thousands of students march for blocks,
undocumented and unafraid;
where my friend Rosa finds the power to blossom
in deadlock, her spirit the bedrock of her community.
She knows hope is like a stubborn
ship gripping a dock,
a truth: that you can’t stop a dreamer
nor knock down a dream.         

How could this not be her city
su nación
our country
our America,
our American lyric to write too—
a poem by the people, the poor,
the Protestant, the Muslim, the Jew,
the native, the immigrant,
the black, the brown, the blind, the brave,
the undocumented and undeterred,
the woman, the man, the nonbinary,
the trans,
the ally to all of the above
and more?

Tyrants fear the poet.
Now that we know it
we can’t blow it.
We owe it
to show it
not slow it
although it
hurts to sew it
when the world
skirts below it.      

we must bestow it
like a wick in the poet
so it can grow, lit,
bringing with it
stories to rewrite—
the story of a Puerto Rico depleted but not defeated
a history written that need not be repeated
a nation composed but not yet completed.

There’s a poem in this place—
a poem in America
a poet in every American
who rewrites this nation, who tells
a story worthy of being told on this minnow of an earth
to breathe hope into a palimpsest of time—
a poet in every American
who sees that our poem penned
doesn’t mean our poem’s end.

There’s a place where this poem dwells—
it is here, it is now, in the yellow song of dawn’s bell
that American writes a lyric
we are just beginning to tell.

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