By Tom Robotham
I dwell in Possibility / A fairer House than Prose – Emily Dickinson
On January 20, I turned on CNN first thing in the morning to watch the long hoped for departure of Donald Trump. As he flew away I was overwhelmed by a sense of relief. The feeling of liberation was tempered slightly by fear that someone with ill intent would disrupt the inauguration. But the bright blue sky seemed like a good sign. And so it was: By noon, when Biden was finally sworn in, my relief turned to unbridled joy.
The outpouring of emotion expressed by countless people on my Facebook feed underscored the fact that the joy was widespread. Indeed, I cannot remember a day, since I joined Facebook in 2007, when I witnessed a more jubilant celebration on social media. And as the day unfolded, the joy intensified.
A clear highlight of the ceremony was Amanda Gorman’s masterful delivery of her poem, “The Hill We Climb.” From the moment that she uttered her first line—where can we find light in this never-ending shade?—we were smitten by this 22-year-old poet.
There were flourishes of poetry as well in Biden’s inaugural address, and when he echoed the words of Lincoln—“my whole soul is in it”—there was no doubt about his authenticity as a man of goodwill.
Yes, Gorman stood out, but in so many respects the entire day was poetic, right on through the evening’s “Parade Across America,” which opened with Bruce Springsteen singing “Land of Hope and Dreams”—alone, in front of the Lincoln Memorial—and subsequently featured Bon Jovi’s cover of “Here Comes the Sun,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s recitation of Biden’s favorite poem by Seamus Heaney, and other stellar performances almost too numerous to count.
THE INFUSION OF POETRY into our ailing body politic was welcome indeed. Two days after the inauguration, Timothy Egan highlighted the beauty of this moment in a New York Times column titled, “A President Can Govern in Poetry.”
“Why not reverse the political aphorism,” Egan asked, “and govern in poetry after campaigning in prose?”
While that may strike the most jaded among us as hopelessly romantic and starkly at odds with the harshness of Washington’s political realities, Egan makes a good case that it is not—and I wholeheartedly agree.
“Biden is known for his empathy,” he wrote. “But he also has something that leaders from Nelson Mandela to Abraham Lincoln had — a belief in the power of why not? That’s the province of poets, not policy wonks.”
This is something so many people seem unable to recognize—that a president, if he or she is to achieve greatness—must be more than the country’s CEO. The job is not simply about getting bills passed and implementing policy. It’s about setting the right tone for the nation. I first began to realize this years ago when I asked my father, who’d grown up during the Depression, why FDR is regarded as such a great president. My father’s answer was short and to the point: “He kept hope alive,” he said.
In his address, Biden himself noted that overcoming the nation’s many challenges will “require more than words.” This is undeniable. And yet, it is also undeniable that the power and importance of a president’s words are enormously important. Trump demonstrated this fact again and again, ruling by Tweets that gave his selfish and hateful base hope while inflicting deep trauma on the rest of us. Words, moreover, can lead to direct action. It was Trump’s words, after all, that sparked the insurrection at the Capitol. By contrast, it is worth bearing in mind that we continue to hold Lincoln in such high regard, not only because he saved the Union, but because of the eloquence of his speeches.
And one needn’t go all the way back to Lincoln to see evidence of the power of words from national leaders. In his column, Egan noted that in a congratulatory letter to Biden, the president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, quoted lines from the poet John O’Donoghue:
Though your destination is not yet clear / You can trust the promise of this opening; / Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning / That is at one with your life’s desire. / Awaken your spirit to adventure; / Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk; / Soon you will be home in a new rhythm, / For your soul senses the world that awaits you.
I’D NOT BEEN FAMILIAR with this poem until Egan called it to my attention—but the instant that I read it, it spoke to me as deeply as any of my favorite poems by Yeats, Stevens, Neruda, Oliver, Eliot, Rumi, Auden and others. O’Donoghue’s lines struck a chord not only because they so beautifully express an understanding of Biden’s sense of calling and what is now required of him, but because they spoke so deeply to me on a personal level: In this historic moment, I’m reminded that as a citizen I cannot simply trust in Biden to fix our problems; I must look within and unfurl myself into the grace of beginning.
For me, one aspect of this new beginning is an awakening of a sense of patriotism. I’ve always been ambivalent about that word: too often in our history it has been associated with mindless sentiments about “freedom” by flag-waving, gun-toting nationalists who have no clue about what that word actually means in the context of our troubled history.
This is not to say that I’ve ever felt hatred or disdain for our country. My love of the American idea led me years ago to get a master’s degree in American Studies. During the inauguration, I began to ponder yet again what America means to me, and the word “possibility” came to mind. Later in the day, I was elated to hear Biden use the very same word to describe the American experiment. I have always felt that sense of possibility when gazing upon the works of my favorite American artist—Albert Bierstadt—listening to the music of Aaron Copland and Duke Ellington, and reading Emerson. The inaugural celebration stirred those feelings in me again, not only reviving hope but reviving a desire to seek ways to become a better person and a better citizen.
In keeping with this, I turned back once again to lines from one of my favorite poems by Wallace Stevens, “Prologues to What is Possible.” The poem invites us to think about moments of transformation when “all [our] hereditary lights [are] suddenly increased,” revealing “unexpected magnitudes.”
No, words alone—however poetic—will not solve our problems. We need action, both at the grassroots level and in Washington in the form of laws and policies that address the ongoing pandemic, the wealth gap, threats to our planet, systemic racism, and a whole host of other challenges.
But without inspiration, nothing can be accomplished. I firmly believe that Biden, with his decades of experience in government, can successfully lead this effort. In the meantime, though, his inauguration has already had an enormous impact. The stench that Trump left in the wake of his departure still lingers, like toxic exhaust fumes. Nevertheless, the shift in tone on Jan. 20 was as palpably refreshing as the throwing open of windows in a dark and dreary room on the first warm day of spring to welcome the fresh air and sunshine.