Politics and poetry unite to heal a nation

writing Jan 20, 2021
Amanda Gorman recites her poem at the Biden inauguration

Next time you’re tasked with giving a speech or making a presentation, don’t be in a hurry to start writing. Pause. Hold. Reflect. Think about the changes you want your words to prompt, in attitude, in opinion, in behaviour.

Think about the emotions you want your words to evoke.

Think about your audience, and their preoccupations. Put yourself in their seat, or their shoes. What do they need to hear from you?

And pause some more. What tools will you deploy to build a bridge to that audience? Words? Images? Metaphors? Stories? Prayer? Poetry? Especially poetry.

The inauguration of President Biden gave us two remarkable pieces of writing, neither of which could have been created without plenty of time to pause, to reflect, to think and to research, and without a carefully-defined purpose.

In his inaugural address, Biden looked for sources and references that would support his themes of unity, reconciliation and facing hardships together.

He found plenty of inspiration: Abe Lincoln’s words from 1863; Gene Sheer’s song 'American Anthem' from 1998; the Bible and Saint Augustine; Martin Luther King; a memory of his father; a quote from his mother.

Biden knew his audience. He knew a big chunk of them voted for the other guy. Others were grieving or ground-down by the Covid-19 pandemic. He knew how hard it would be to build a bridge to some of them.

And so he set about writing the biggest speech of his life. Here’s one key passage:

“Look, I understand that many of my fellow Americans view the future with fear and trepidation. I understand they worry about their jobs. I understand, like my dad, they lay in bed at night, staring at the ceiling, wondering, can I keep my health care? Can I pay my mortgage? Thinking about their families, about what comes next. I promise you, I get it.

“But the answer is not to turn inward, to retreat into competing factions, distrusting those who don't look like look like you or worship the way you do, or don't get their news from the same sources you do. We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal.

“We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts. If we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we're willing to stand in the other person's shoes, as my mom would say, just for a moment, stand in their shoes. Because here's the thing about life. There's no accounting for what fate will deal you. Some days, you’ll need a hand. There are other days when we're called to lend a hand. That's how it has to be. That's what we do for one another. And if we are this way, our country will be stronger, more prosperous, more ready for the future. And we can still disagree.”

Conversational. Short phrases (easier for a speaker like Biden, still prone to stutter). Everyday language. Plenty of pauses for the audience to absorb and reflect on the words. Rhythms and patterns and repetitions that make it easy on the ear and give it impact. 

That last quality is so important. It’s what’s we love about poetry. Which brings us to the other stunning moment from the inauguration: the reading of her poem The Hill We Climb by 22 year-old Amanda Gorman (pictured).

And so we lift our gaze 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

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 we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.

Not because we will never again know defeat

But because we will never again sow division.

There again are the themes of unity, grief, healing and hope expressed by Biden. Amanda Gorman said she’d studied the works of MLK, Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and Winston Churchill as she worked on the poem. Looking, she said, for ways in which “rhetoric has been used for good.” And her tools? Simplicity of language, clarity of thought, and simple rhetorical devices that wrap the thoughts in memorable packages.

So one political speech, one poem. They come from very different generations and different perspectives. But both seek the same result. And both share many of the same tools and techniques.

Amanda Gorman’s words could so easily have come out of Biden’s mouth. She, in turn, could easily have spoken his words.

As you think about your next presentation or speech, pull back. Pause. Dig a little deeper into yourself. You may be surprised at what you find... maybe even a poet.