This post is not about the Biden Inauguration…well, not directly.
It’s true that on the day Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States, there was a pervasive sigh of relief that the long nightmare of Donald Trump’s presidency—with all its incompetent mendacity—was now over. There seemed to be a sense of newness in the air. Just two weeks before, the very Capitol steps on which Biden repeated the oath of office had been overrun by an insurrectionist mob that swore fealty to the previous President, disputed the results of the presidential election, threatened the lives of federal officials and caused five deaths. On Inauguration day, change was clearly warranted. But it came most unexpectedly in the presence of the nation’s 22 year-old National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman.
In the midst of political machinations and polarized politics, a young woman of color steps to the inaugural stage to captivate a public hungry for hope. In a seemingly effortless (it was nothing of the kind) paean to civility, integrity, dignity and simple truth, she called on us while castigating us, claimed us while shaming us, inspired us while reminding us of who we are, warts and all.
As an intermittent sun shone down on the Biden inauguration, another light shone brightly from the stage itself—a symbolic beacon for all to see, hear and experience, a beacon of hope. With simple but soaring words, with commanding but delicate hand gestures, Ms. Gorman called us to our higher angels, gently pleading, proudly prodding, pointedly projecting towards a hoped-for future.
Ms. Gorman’s stunning words and powerful delivery restored hope on multiple levels to a nation weary with anguish and division. Her poem, The Hill We Climb, is a soaring tribute to the nation’s promise. Weeks in the planning, her words were completed on the very night that the Capitol was assaulted. She did not shy away from problems plaguing this country; by acknowledging our shortcomings, she strengthened the claim that we can yet achieve the more perfect union we have envisioned since our founding.
And she did it not with the complex, scholarly prose or the rousing rhetoric of great political oratory, but with the poetry of a young woman who distilled what is both best and worst about this country. Poetry. We seem to have lost the experience of verse in our lives. She caught fire and inspired in a way we needed to hear: Direct. Honest. Optimistic.
Amanda Gorman’s backstory is as inspiring as her words. Growing up in Los Angeles, she had the opportunity to live in the midst of the rich ethnic mosaic that is America. Julia Baraga reported in the Los Angeles Times, “Gorman is a lot better at it now but still working on her confidence as a public speaker. Like her predecessor [inaugural poet] Maya Angelou and the president-elect, she grapples with a speech impediment… Gorman has labored to perfect sounds most people take for granted. The R has been a particular challenge. [She] struggled for years not to say “poetwy.”
“But I don’t look at my disability as a weakness,” Gorman said. “It’s made me the performer that I am and the storyteller that I strive to be. When you have to teach yourself how to say sounds, when you have to be highly concerned about pronunciation, it gives you a certain awareness of sonics, of the auditory experience.”
Her courage and her formidable and fashionable presence challenged us in ways that few orators can. Poetry connects the heart and the mind, the internal and the external, the present and the future in ways that evoke beauty and inspire courage.
Georgetown University’s Cóilín Parsons, writing in the Washington Post before the election, reminded us of President Biden’s reliance on poetry. “During his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Joe Biden resorted to a tactic that will be familiar to anyone who has paid attention this election cycle: He quoted some lines from the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. ‘History says / Don’t hope on this side of the grave / But then, once in a lifetime / The longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up / And hope and history rhyme.’ As a candidate inspired by poetry instead of Fox News, Biden sets himself apart from President Trump and his tweetstorms.”
Can Biden govern with poetry? It takes a depth of insight to do that effectively and clearly the transactional President we just retired did not have that in his bones…or in his heart. But, if Biden surrounds himself with the likes of Amanda Gorman, he will be well on his way to healing the deep longing for imagination and connection in the American soul that so often goes unattended. As Gorman says, “Poetry is typically the touchstone that we go back to when we have to remind ourselves of the history that we stand on, and the future that we stand for.”
May we soon enter the day when “hope and history rhyme.”