Main Street in Park City is crammed with people for the first time during the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. People are running down to giant screens at the bottom of the street where Aretha Franklin is singing “I vow to thee my country”: the image of a black woman born in a brothel, beaten and raped as a teenager, singing in front of two million people in the National Mall and millions more around the world says it all – the chance for America to once more become what it first claimed it was more than two hundred years ago.
BOOs greet outgoing President Bush, and gloved thumbs give the Roman “thumbs down” sign: if this were a gladitorial arena, rather than a political ceremony, he wouldn’t get out alive. Then Biden is sworn in, and YoYo Ma plays a piece written by (ironically) Englishman John Williams. Ironic because — once Obama is sworn in and the cheers die at last– his speech will reference the struggle against the English two hundred years ago as evidence of the strength America has to overcome its current difficulties.
There’s little comfort here in Utah for those who would believe people– especially young people — no longer care about politics. As I write, cars are driving past with radios tuned to Obama’s speech and the streets and coffee shops all have their TV screens tuned to the ceremony. One solitary young man, it’s true, is listening to hip-hop as he instant messages on his hand-held. But that one person apart, everyone is taken by the sense of history, by the sense that — just maybe — this country will turn again to the values of humanity and democracy on which it was founded.
After all that optimism, the inaugural poem proves how adequate or otherwise modern verse is to the occasion when a poet is called on to memorialise an unforgetable instant. There was more poetry in Obama’s every action, in every word of his inaugural speech, than there was to be found in all five minutes of the inaugural poem. That apart, history has happened in America and to Americans today: and every one of them is conscious of it – maybe even that young man listening to hip-hop, thumbs on his computer, pretending not to care.