Here we are…2021, a new year, a new lockdown…and a new US president! For the first time in years, there is a sense of genuine…dare I say, “hope”? in the air. With the end of the Trump era, the world has let out a collective sigh of relief, and prays that 2021 does indeed bear better news for all.
This tension between hope and despair was perfectly captured by the words of 22 year old Amanda Gorman and her inauguration poem, The Hill We Climb. Poetry is not a traditional part of inaugurations, and Gorman is only the sixth poet in history to partake in the ceremony.
Her selection is symbolic for several reasons: her age and her race represent a shifting of tides. As Gen Z comes of age, more woke than ever, Gorman (who at the age of 17 was the nation’s first National Youth Poetry Laureate) expresses the indignation her generation feels at witnessing the ‘adults in charge’ royally screwing up.
At the same time however, she invokes wisdom beyond her years to recognise the reality that politics will never achieve perfection. Not that this excuses anyone who would not participate in the democracy, or even worse, act to wilfully hinder it.
The skill of her wordcraft is also on display in a subtle reference to the Bible. Not for its spiritual connotations, but in its own layered drama in American history:
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 our own time, then victory won’t lighten the blade
But in all the bridges we’ve made, that is the promise to glade
There are three references at play here:
- The literal Biblical reference of Micah 4:4, in which the prophet Micah speaks to a nation in a state of disrepair, searching for restoration…(hmm, sound familiar?) The passage in the Bible even features the subtitles ‘The Mountain of the House of the Lord’ and ‘The Restoration of Zion’.
- George Washington himself had a reputation of referencing this passage. He was fond of the imagery of the “vine and fig” to juxtapose the simple life of the common man versus the extravagance of royalty.
- The popular musical Hamilton features a reference to this line as well, with the character of George Washington singing it. It’s the first of two Hamilton references in Gorman’s poem.
By weaving these three strands of literary and historical references, Gorman captures the essence of past, present, and future hope, something that the US is in desperate need of.
The ancient Biblical past informed the founding fathers, leading to the modern interpretation by way of a hugely successful Broadway musical. It’s the latter that helped inform a new generation of the untold story of founding father Alexander Hamilton. The show’s popularity has arguably instilled a renewed sense of “purpose” into the democratic dream, especially for a generation born in the 21st Century.
Thus, Gorman’s lines of poetry and striking presence at the Inauguration represents a bold step forward for the next generation of leaders and thinkers, not just in America, but all over the globe.
This simple reference may get lost amongst Gorman’s other wonderful turns of phrases. But it certainly wasn’t lost on Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. The two writers exchanged on Twitter:
Before the inauguration, Gorman was only a well-known name in poetry circles. Her words on the steps of Capitol Hill are now immortalised and her voice speaks to power on behalf of youth all over the world, hopefully opening a new chapter of global politics that if not perfect, one that we can finally be proud of working to improve together.