[T]he strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.”
–Athenian representative speaking to Melian governing body; Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (Rex Warner translation), Book Five
[I]f we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy, and change our children’s birthright.
–Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”
Poet Amanda Gorman’s inauguration poem is a stunning achievement, not just for her graceful and composed performance during the ceremony but also for the way her words and wordplay grapple with the crisis of a nation attempting to emerge from the horrors of Trumpism. Facing the daunting task of duty–an inaugural poem should reflect the lofty ideals of a nation and offer hope of achieving those ideals–Gorman doesn’t flinch from the enormity of the challenge facing the (dis-)United States.
To focus on just one passage as an example: in one remarkable phrase, Gorman invokes the ideas of mercy, might, right, love, and change.
At first I stumbled a bit, suspicious of the facile internal rhymes. Might combined with right? That’s the problem isn’t it? Ever since the Athenians threatened the residents of the little island of Melos during the Peloponnesian War, “might makes right” has been an odious policy, whether it’s in matters personal, social, or political.
And we’ve just emerged, maybe, from four years of might-makes-right. The loudest tweet, the most stentorian yell, the biggest gun, the mother of all bombs–Trumpism is might-makes-right embodied in the worst of demagogic intimidation and bluster. It’s the disease Eugene Ionesco called rhinoceritis in his prescient play about totalitarianism, “Rhinoceros”–the sloughing off of human decency and moral constraints to trample with the herd over the weak and helpless. Storm the Capitol!
But look what Gorman does. “If we merge mercy with might,” she writes (emphasis added). It’s mercy and love that might steer the ship of justice into safer waters.
Good for her for recognizing the need for love and mercy to leaven the bread of democracy. If indeed this is what she is doing in the passage, and I think it is, Gorman offers poetic justice in a desperate moment of need.
Here’s a quick Poetry DNA rendering of Gorman’s phrase. Perhaps some future composer will orchestrate the entire poem. There’s an engaging spoken word, iambic-heavy flow to her words.
Below are resources and links to some of the more interesting responses to Gorman’s poem.
- Video of Gorman delivering the inauguration poem
- New York Times article
- Genius.com analysis
- BBC article
- All inauguration poems (Lithub article)
- PBS lesson plan
- The Guardian article
- WBUR commentary by January Gill O’Neil
- English teacher Seth Perlow’s analysis
- À la une – après la violence au Capitole…la poésie.