America was already exhausted, but relieved, by the time we got a glimpse of Amanda Gorman, the nation’s first ever youth poet laureate. By midday on the day of the Biden/Harris inauguration, there had been no reprise of the Jan. 6 insurrection, not even a scuffle.
Meanwhile, the disgraced spiritual leader of that uprising was en route to his Florida compound where sycophants would assure him that “American Carnage” was far more in keeping with the spirit of the times than Joe Biden’s “kumbaya” rhetoric.
As we watched the poised young poet prepare to read, we couldn’t help noticing that she looked far younger than any 22-year-old Harvard grad has a right to look. Ms. Gorman could’ve been an especially elegant teenager who wouldn’t have been old enough to drink at any of the canceled balls that evening if we were only going by her looks.
It was only when she began to recite lyrics crafted for that moment that we understood the depths of her performative wisdom, the breadth of her rhythmic insight and the scope of her poetic vision.
The wax that had accumulated in our ears to protect us from the daily insults to our national spirit began to loosen and fall out. What flowed from Amanda Gorman’s tongue gave voice to the hopes, dreams and aspirations of a people who had nearly forgotten that a platform at a political event didn’t have to be an occasion for anger and lies.
“Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed/ a nation that isn’t broken/ but simply unfinished,” Ms. Gorman said, gesturing with graceful intent as her words were absorbed by an audience that, according to precedent, probably expected something more routine and forgettable.
Instead, America was getting its first look at a young artist forged by the company of academics by day and slam poets by night. She gave no quarter to the audience by adjusting her cadence for the hard of hearing or slow of comprehending. With faint echoes of “Hamilton: The Musical” and refined hip-hop, her poem was steeped in truths found outside the world of D.C. power posing.
“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 form a union with purpose./ To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors/ characters and/ conditions of man.”
Like President Joe Biden’s own inaugural address, which called out systemic racial oppression and white supremacy for the first time in the history of presidential inaugural speeches, Ms. Gorman called for unity based on a recognition of the four-year toxic political winter we’re only beginning to emerge from:
“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.”
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The closest Ms. Gorman came to referring directly to the events of Jan. 6 appear a few lines later: “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 force that would shatter our nation/ rather than share it./ Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy./ And this effort nearly succeeded. / But while democracy can be periodically delayed,/ it can never be permanently defeated.”
There are a lot of assumptions packed in that section and cynics will argue unearned optimism. Ms. Gorman is an optimistic poet who is able to put her lofty aspirations into words with conviction. That’s her job. She dares to believe when others can’t be bothered to take democracy seriously.
Much has been made of the final lines of Ms. Gorman’s poem delivered with what we pray isn’t a futile hope given how polarized we are: “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.”
It was a stunning five-minute performance. You could almost hear the applause coming from every other house up and down our American streets. It was the proof we needed that there was no longer the automatic expectation of drooling idiocy at a political event and that room has once again been made for the presence of grace and beauty.
Not every speech or segment delivered on Wednesday was as impactful, but Ms. Gorman did establish a bar that many will seek to surpass at future inaugurations, if only as a point of professional pride. Her speech, like Mr. Biden’s, was the opposite in tone of the infamous “American Carnage” inaugural address. Both served as welcome antidotes to the overwhelming stupidity and vulgarity of political discourse in the age of Trump.
By the time Bruce Springsteen stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for a solo acoustic performance later that evening, I was already convinced that our culture was emerging from the toxic winter fine and dandy.
Mr. Springsteen broke into a fierce, but abbreviated rendition of “Land of Hope and Dreams” that leaned heavily on its Woody Guthrie influences and Gospel images to express American optimism in the face of the task at hand: “I will provide for you/ And I’ll stand by your side/ You’ll need a good companion/ For this part of the ride/ Leave behind your sorrows/ Let this day be the last/ Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine/ and all this darkness past.”
But it is the chorus, sung through clenched teeth that never fails to break my heart because of the way it captures our uniquely American contradictions: “Big wheels roll through fields/ Where sunlight streams/ Meet me in the land of hope and dreams/ This train carries saints and sinners/ This train carries losers and winners/ This train carries whores and gamblers/ This train carries lost souls/ I said, this train dreams will not be thwarted/ This train faith will be rewarded/ This train hear the steel wheels singin’/ This train bells of freedom ringin.’”
Mr. Springsteen got a lot of heat for the song when he began playing it in 2001 because some critics considered it too mawkish and full of too many tropes of American mythology. There were way too many trains and sun-lit streams in it for their tastes.
The genius of Bruce Springsteen is composing a song two decades ago capable of irritating now-forgotten critics while perfectly fitting the peculiar urgency of these times. Whether he plays it solo or with the E Street Band, it always rises to the moment. Along with Ms. Gorman’s poem and Mr. Biden’s speech, it invited us to engage as equal partners in the hard work of reimagining our nation as a place of hope and dreams once again.