This essay is co-published with our friends at Nieman Storyboard.
The inauguration of Joe Biden brought America lessons on the relationship between good language and good government. A minute did not pass during the inauguration without some form of poetry being expressed.
It came from the lyrics of sacred songs and anthems, sung in a way that elevated their power.
It came in the call and response rhythm of the oaths. You could hear it in the soulful invocations at the beginning and the end of the civil liturgy, and in the many bible verses that were quoted. The ghost of Abraham Lincoln was in the air.
There was a common poetry in the new president’s address, in its language, rhythms and delivery.
And, of course, it was there in the presence, purpose and presentation of a 22-year-old Black poet named Amanda Gorman.
I was 12 years old in 1961 when I watched on television the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president of the United States. I went to Catholic school. I did not understand much of what Kennedy said, but I knew soaring rhetoric and elevated language when I heard it.
Phrases like “passing the torch to a new generation” and “ask not what your country can do for you” sounded meaningful, even if I could not yet figure out what they meant.
And then came the poet. Robert Frost. He was well-named on that frigid day, as he struggled with reading a new dedication to his poem in the glare of the winter sun. Others tried to help him, including the defeated Richard Nixon, who offered to hold off the glare with his top hat.
Frost was the first poet to read at a presidential inauguration. He was 87.
The arc of inaugural poetry over 60 years brought us from the ancient Frost to the youthful Gorman, from a black-and-white picture on a small TV screen to a dazzling young woman whose voice and gestures offered a presence of hopeful promise.
A year later, at the age of 88, Frost would die in his sleep, four Pulitzer Prizes for poetry under his pillow, leaving a legacy of work that would fill high school and college anthologies for generations. At the age of 22, Gorman may never again mount a stage as big as the one she occupied the morning of Jan. 20, 2021, but her work shows the promise of a brilliant career, and is worth our close attention.
Biden, Trump, and plain language
Before I get to it, let me offer a technical term of rhetorical study: diction. I do not mean clarity of speech. I mean the collection of word choices made by the author. Phrases like “America first” and “American carnage” presaged the dysphemistic language that would mark most, but not all, of the Trump presidency. His favorite subgenres were off-the-cuff humor, insults, exaggerations, lies, slogans, disinformation and conspiracy theories.
I once heard Norman Mailer tell a Nieman conference that because he was a writer he was inclined to choose his political favorites by whether or not they use language well. That made me think of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. (Three Republicans, and three Democrats.)
When I think of Joe Biden, I imagine a guy sitting next to me on a barstool, sharing a joke, and telling me I’m “full of malarkey.”
In his diction today, Biden rose to the occasion, not with gauzy flights of language but with a balance between facing the dreadful problems of the day and finding hope in a seemingly unimaginable unity. He tried to neutralize the political poison of the moment with the language of unity, decency, integrity, hard work, democracy and hope.
Biden used language that George Orwell might have called “demotic speech,” the language of the people, marked by his direct address to the crowd and his larger audience as “Folks …”
Orwell argued that the British people would not be persuaded to make sacrifices needed for the war against fascism if they were talked down to by stuffed shirts in the government and the media. They needed someone to speak to them in their own language.
It must be said that Donald Trump has that ability, demonstrated in his many pep rallies and countless tweets. Even his grammatical and spelling mistakes are honored by his followers who, despite his wealth, see him as “one of us” — not one of those scientists, professors or “experts.”
But no style of language — high-brow or low — can be honored if it remains detached from a noble purpose or public interest. Many tyrants have been mesmerizing orators. Some of them are populists. Most are demagogues, those who offer promises, gain your support, then lead you down the dark path. Like into the Capitol, armed and dangerous.
‘The Hill We Climb’ by Amanda Gorman
Below, I will share Gorman’s inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” and provide comments in intervals. I did not have a definitive transcript of the poem — I downloaded it in chunky prose-like paragraphs — but have broken it up into lines that lent themselves to some analysis and discussion.
Americans and the world, when day comes, we ask ourselves where can we find light in this neverending shade?
The loss we carry at sea we must wade.
We’ve braved the belly of the beast. We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace.
In the norms and notions of what just is isn’t always justice.
I read this aloud several times and now hear the rhythms, wordplay and repetitions I recognize from spoken-word competitions, rap music, even “Hamilton.” The contrast between light and shade may seem too familiar — like belly of the beast — until we recognize that “throwing shade” is contemporary slang for harsh public criticism.
The entire work is filled with half-rhymes, which work nicely in prose as well: beast and peace; just is and 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.
We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president only to find herself reciting for one.
This is a familiar trope (Lincoln born in a log cabin), but it gains wattage spoken by a “skinny Black girl.” It echoes a Michelle Obama speech in which she said, “I wake up each morning in a house that was built by slaves.” The White House. I appreciate the reference to herself in the third person and in the present moment.
And yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect. We are striving to forge our union with purpose. To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters, and conditions of man.
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us. We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.
The wordplay is worthy, alliterations that do not sound forced when they are read aloud — seven “C” words in a single sentence. Notice the parallels in “what stands between us” and “what stands before us,” and the rhyme in divide and aside.
We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another. 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 will forever be tied together victorious. Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.
Writers, check this out: That passage comprises 74 words — 62 have only one syllable. Poets since Geoffrey Chaucer have understood the English language is well-suited to their craft because it came down to us from two different language streams: the one-syllable drumbeat of Anglo-Saxon English and the Latin and French influences that give us longer words such as “victorious” and “division.”
Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid.
If we’re to live up to her own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made. That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb if only we dare.
It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit. It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.
We’ve seen a forest that would shatter our nation rather than share it. Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy. This effort very nearly succeeded. But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated.
Poems like this are sometimes called “occasional,” that is, they are written for a special occasion. I would like to learn more about when this poet was invited to read, the process she used to write, and what revisions were inspired by recent events such as the attack on the Capitol. It was Ezra Pound who wrote that literature is “news that stays news.”
In this truth, in this faith we trust for while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us.
This is the era of just redemption. We feared it at its inception.
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour, but within it, we found the power to author a new chapter, to offer hope and laughter to ourselves.
This was one great theme of the inauguration. That “sacred” places of democracy were attacked, but in the end, survived, with the hope that the country’s steel will be tempered by the struggle.
So while once we asked, how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe? Now we assert, how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be a country that is bruised, but whole, benevolent, but bold, fierce, and free.
We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation.
Our blunders become their burdens. But one thing is certain, if we merge mercy with might and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright.
Gorman favors sound imagery throughout: blunders and burdens, merge and mercy, might and right and birthright, love and legacy, change and children.
So let us leave behind a country better than one we were left with.
Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.
“Bronze-pounded chest” is one of the most intriguing images in the poem. Is it pounded because it is under attack? Is it being forged and strengthened and pounded as by a smithy? Is she pounding her breast as an expression of courage and pride? All three? That’s poetry.
We will rise from the gold-limned hills of the West. We will rise from the wind-swept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution. We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states. We will rise from the sun-baked South.
This is one of my favorite tropes, the uniting view of the country from the sky. The great American flyover.
Woody Guthrie offers it in “This Land Is Your Land,” sung by Jennifer Lopez. At the end of “I Have a Dream,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shows us all the places in America where freedom should ring. There is an echo of that here.
But let’s not forget Chuck Berry: “Well, they’ll be rockin’ in Boston. Pittsburgh, PA. Deep in the heart of Texas. And ‘round the ‘Frisco Bay.” Or get your kicks on Route 66.
We will rebuild, reconcile and recover in every known nook of our nation, in every corner called our country our people diverse and beautiful will emerge battered and beautiful.
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.
“To see it” and “to be it.” Six words, 13 letters, deep meaning.
Maybe a big lesson is that all texts created for an inauguration are meant to be read aloud. What might happen if we all wrote that way, all the time? Reading a draft aloud allows you to hear things you cannot see, makes audible your writing voice, and turns you — yourself — into your first reader.
Maybe it would help us create a congenial and persuasive public writing voice that readers need now more than ever.