As the U.S. Looks Toward the Presidential Inauguration, the Academy of American Poets Selects Three Students' Inaugural Poems to Speak to the Moment

New York, NY (January 19, 2021)— The Academy of American Poets, the nation’s leading champion of poets and poetry, has selected three students’ poems to share for the occasion of the Presidential Inauguration on January 20. The three poems were chosen from nearly one thousand poems submitted by students by Presidential Inaugural Poet and the Academy’s Education Ambassador Richard Blanco as winners of the 2021 Inaugural Poem Contest. The three poems, which reflect on the country’s challenges, strengths, and hope for its future, will be featured on Poets.org, Poem-a-Day, and in American Poets magazine, reaching more than 500,000 readers. Thanks to an anonymous donor, the first place-winning student will receive $1,000; second place, $600; and third place, $300. 

The three student poets are: 

Hallie Knight, age 17, from Jacksonville, FL, whose poem, “To Rebuild” won first place; Mina King, age 17, from Shreveport, LA, whose poem, “In Pursuit of Dawn” won second place; and Gabrielle Marshall, age 12, from Richmond, VA, whose poem, “The Power of Hope Today” won third place.

"As the Academy’s Education Ambassador and the 2013 Presidential Inaugural Poet, I’m truly honored to have been part of this project, and excited to share these moving and uplifting student poems. These profound and spirited voices confirm that our country’s youth understands that poetry is a vital way to reflect on our nation’s past and present, and to envision the future of our shared humanity,” said Richard Blanco. “What’s more, they offer us a fresh vision of hope and healing during these turbulent times.”

Only six poets in American history have been commissioned by Presidents Elect to pen poems to be shared at their Inaugurations, including Amanda Gorman, the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate, who is the 2021 Inaugural Poet. At age 22, Gorman is the youngest Inaugural Poet in history. 

Students from across the country were invited to study past Inaugural poets and poems and to try their hand at writing their own as part of the Inaugural Poem Project, and to submit to the 2021 Inaugural Poem Contest. Submissions were accepted online from November 30, 2020 to December 30, 2020.

The three winning poems are:

“To Rebuild” by Hallie Knight, first-place winner

The house was built,

Brick by brick, pane by pane,

Initially withstanding winds,

The force of a hurricane.

 

But over time, the faults are found

As storm after storm

Assails, the craftsmanship outdated,

In need of reform.

 

The windows break, one by one,

Under the weight of wrongs, the structure strains,

Until one day fire catches,

And only the foundation of good intentions remains.

 

While easiest would be to walk,

To abandon, moving on to rebuild,

The value is seen by those who have called it

Home, desires to be fulfilled.

 

Remembering the mistakes,

Maintaining the hope of freedom,

Hand in hand, we work,

Entering a new season.

 

The work is not complete until

The walls protect all who live there,

No exceptions. Abandonment of all

Unnecessary despair.

 

A job led by all, not by one,

We work long days turn long nights.

The creation of our hands

Proving more than surface level acknowledgment of rights.

 

The past is not buried

But underlies

What we have transformed

Before our eyes.

What a powerful analogy Hallie Knight has drawn for us: our country imagined as a house that we built together and has been figuratively destroyed. Yet the foundations of our hopes, ideals, and perseverance remain intact, allowing us to rebuild our country, our home, echoing Abraham Lincoln’s powerful words: ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’” —Richard Blanco

“In Pursuit of Dawn” by Mina King, second-place winner

I have never heard America described as quiet. 

Even street lights seem to pulse to some interminable heartbeat

beneath buildings endeavoring for the clouds.

Our purposeful words often laced in ample volume. 

In such social engagements

all varieties of people run together—

words flowing, ideas pooling—

eager to share and just as soon to hear. 

But have ideas—opportunities—collaborations

extending beyond the bounds of our borders

with reverberations felt through every city, capital, and country

ever began with silence and seclusion?

 

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.

 

He is one of America’s thousands,

evidence of excellence obtained by

those in pursuit of changing their fortune. 

And as snow-ridden summits yield to streams

and torrid deserts to the placid waltz of grassy plains,

each of us—

guided by the compass of our will—

is free to climb, swim, or walk

to whatever we may choose.

 

All countries of ample years have a shadow beneath a flat

cast by historical iniquities amended too late. 

But how it still catches the propitious wind!

Always endeavoring to fly higher and baste the somber shade beneath.

As it flutters, we stand reverently

for those who can no longer

and for those who cannot yet. 

The horizon an interminable stretch of past and future

we gaze upon it, in remembrance of what was, 

yet trekking forward toward what can be.

 

We are a coalescence of voices,

each with unparalleled inflection, 

yet our conglomeration of somber and elated tones

still manages to reach harmony. 

 

The diversity of our country

—of opinions and cultures and beliefs—

as extraordinary as the vast, varying landscapes. 

Some stand tall, imposing, confident as the Rockies;

the great height of their achievements 

not formidable but inspiring. 

Still others humble and hushed as the plains;

yet their voice embodied in the breeze touches all. 

From mountains to marshes to mesas, 

we are united in the embrace of the same two seas. 

Invaluable are contrasting beliefs

bridged by curiosity and a common desire for betterment. 

A miscellany not of problems but possible solutions are we. 

Speak up, I implore you,

for in your voice we might find the answer. 

 

The American dream—

one smile, one sunrise, 

one decision to pursue an insatiable passion

for words, for equality, for science

—away from the American reality. 

 

When hardships splatter like ebony ink across the skyline,

extinguishing the hues still smoldering from the former day,

pinpricks of hope still remain.

And in these celestial bodies we find solace,

arranging the stars against the somber background into

symbols and pictures of progress.

And beneath them we endure in pursuit of dawn.

“With a sweeping Whitmanesque voice, Mina King surveys and celebrates the diversity of our nation’s many landscapes: natural, cultural, emotional.  The poem reminds us of our collective quest for that proverbial dawn, representing our perpetual desire and hope ‘…to form a more perfect Union,’ as written in our constitution.” —Richard Blanco

“The Power of Hope Today” by Gabrielle Marshall, third-place winner

Today’s hope is a flickering candle that dwells in a snow-dusted window, 

circulating the prayers of Christmas mornings. 

Today’s hope is the crisp daffodil in colorless photos, 

containing the soul of a small  

child, 

who only wishes and knows of 

peace and love. 

Today’s hope is the sparkling eyes that  

truly believe in achieving  

anything to reach unity. 

Today’s hope is the palm to palm connection 

bracing each other for the climb neither expected, 

but couldn’t abandon. 

Today’s hope is peering  

beyond  

the lingering barrier, 

but still recognizing the diversity in ourselves.  

Today’s hope has been dimmed and tossed recklessly,  

but still generously stays with us, 

for we cannot help but come back 

like wide eyed children to candy. 

We are said to be weak to rely on such strength, 

but we are only believers.  

That spark  

That gives science a baffled case 

And oceans an infinite plane, 

is the eagle that dips  

and soars 

 and fights, 

which stands for 

the hope of 

today.  

“Reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s famous poem, ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers, Gabrielle Marshall reaffirms the enduring and unwavering power of our nation’s hopes, which never abandons us, even during these trying times.” —Richard Blanco

To read more about the 2021 Inaugural Poem Project and Contest for Students, visit: https://poets.org/academy-american-poets/inaugural-poem-project-and-contest-students

About the Academy of American Poets 

The Academy of American Poets is the nation’s leading champion of poets and poetry with supporters in all fifty states. Founded in 1934, the organization annually awards more funds to individual poets than any other organization through its prize program, giving a total of $1,250,000 to more than 200 poets at various stages of their careers. The Academy also produces Poets.org, the world’s largest publicly funded website for poets and poetry; originated and organizes National Poetry Month; publishes the popular Poem-a-Day series and American Poets magazine; provides award-winning resources to K–12 educators, including the Teach This Poem series; hosts an annual series of poetry readings and special events; and coordinates a national Poetry Coalition working together to promote the value poets bring to the country’s culture. This year, in response to the global health crisis, the organization joined six other national organizations to launch Artist Relief, a multidisciplinary coalition of arts grantmakers and a consortium of foundations working to provide resources and funding to the country’s individual poets, writers, and artists who are impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.