On September 2, 2018, I wrote about the ethics of writing Poetry. That’s poetry with a capital P. I’m a poet, but I don’t know it. Rhyming pun intended.
From then to now, nothing new came to me about poetry. I didn’t know there was such a thing as “political poetry.” That changed when President Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. was inaugurated as our forty-sixth president on January 20, 2021. That’s the day most of us learned political poetry was a real thing and saw Amanda Gorman rise to the top of that world. That’s the day she enchanted America and a good part of the rest of the world.
She called her poem, “The Hill We Climb.” She didn’t read it to the tens of millions watching the virtual inauguration, she performed it.
“We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it,
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
It can never be permanently defeated.”
To say she “just” performed it is at once misleading and understating. She soared, entranced and danced while standing perfectly still. She warmed every heart and soothed every soul by giving us all a poetic moment none will soon forget.
Amanda Gorman began by asking a question poetically and answering it politically.
“When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade
We’ve braved the belly of the beast
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace.”
Then, as we all were glued to the screen, she took us to a place we haven’t been in for four long, disturbing years. She smiled, waved her arms, talked with her fingers and sparkled at us with her eyes. She took us to the land of language, norms, notions and truth.
“And the norms and notions
of what just is
Isn’t always justice
And yet the dawn is ours
before we knew it
Somehow we do it
Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken
but simply unfinished.”
She performed for just under six minutes, and the world held its collective breath, hoping she’d stay as long as she wanted. She brought new magic to the word “mesmerized.” Her in-person audience, on the dais with her, was politically diverse, hopeful, and scared. Everyone there knew about the name-calling tweets, the ignited flames, the glaring bravado damning the truth and the brazen conspiracy theories that glorified one man’s rallies for four years. She was a poetical remedy.
“We seek harm to none and harmony for all
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we hurt, we hoped
That even as we tired, we tried
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious
Not because we will never again know defeat
but because we will never again sow division”
Town & Country said she “stole the show.” She’s twenty-two and just a tad over five feet two. She jumped over the mountain and wrote an inaugural poem to best the elder best—including past inaugural poets– Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Miller Williams, Elizabeth Alexander and Richard Blanco. She did it before tens of millions on television all over the world. And she did it on the same stage that Lady Gaga, Garth Brooks and Jennifer Lopez did their thing. Any bets on who won that show?
The New York Times said, “She set out to write a poem that would inspire hope and foster a sense of collective purpose, at a moment when Americans are reeling from a deadly pandemic, political violence and partisan division.” Any doubts she jumped way over that bar?
The Guardian said, “Her recital at Joe Biden’s inauguration electrified viewers and sent the hitherto little known poet’s work to the top of the charts. They think she’s “the voice of a new American era.” MLive.com said, “People can’t stop talking about her.”
Arguably, The Washington Post may have seen well beyond what The Washington Post usually sees. “On Wednesday, Joe Biden may have been inaugurated as president for the next four years, but 22-year-old Amanda Gorman crowned herself as a voice for the ages — by so emphatically reminding us of Audre Lorde’s declaration: ‘Poetry is not a luxury.’”
Mr. Lorde’s full statement brings clarity to poetry’s secret. “Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”
How will we remember that day? How will we remember her? She’ll tell us in new poems. And her debut day to the top of the poetry charts will reverberate as science trumps foolishness, racism dies, and hope lives.
In my 2018 blog about the ethics of poetry, I quoted two of my favorite poets. T.S. Eliot said, “Poetry is a raid on the inarticulate.” And Robert Frost said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” Amanda Gorman raided Trump’s consistently inarticulate tweets. And she never lost her Inaugural audience in translation.
Does Ethics, with a capital E have its own set of norms and imperatives? Perhaps not, at least in the shade Amanda Gorman talked about. But her poetry speaks to what we should do, when we should start, and how we should finish.
“When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it”
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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 For the full transcript of “The Hill We Climb” copyright, Amanda Gorman, see https://thehill.com/homenews/news/535052-read-transcript-of-amanda-gormans-inaugural-poem