Jacksonville teen wins inaugural poem contest

17-year-old is Bishop Kenny High School’s student of the month

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Hallie Knight, a senior at Bishop Kenny High School, has some well-formed ideas about where the country is and how she’d like to see it change.

The 17-year-old 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. 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
Unnecessary despair.

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.

This is far from the first honor for Knight, who was named Bishop Kenny’s student of the month for January. She is currently deciding which college she’s likely to attend and will seek a degree in chemical engineering. She is a National Merit semi-finalist, maintains a 4.41 GPA and is a member of the National Honors Society, the Science Honor Society and the Math Honor Society.

Knight is part of the cross country team, a board member of the school’s Interact Club and a member of the History Club. She is an extraordinary minister of the Holy Eucharist and is active in campus ministry.

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.

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.

“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.”

Knight said she was particularly honored because of who chose her poem.

“Knowing that the contest was judged by Richard Blanco, such an accomplished poet, whose inaugural poem creates such a beautiful image of our country,” Knight said.

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.

Amanda Gorman, the country’s first Youth Poet Laureate, will read her own inaugural poem during Wednesday’s ceremony. 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.

About the Authors: