The World Keeps Turning with Allen Woods: Amanda Gorman defeats ‘sunny nihilism’

  • National youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman recites her inaugural poem during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 20, 2021.  AP PHOTO/PATRICK SEMANSKY

Published: 1/14/2022 2:31:51 PM
Modified: 1/14/2022 2:30:58 PM


On the second day of our new year, one that I swear (just like I did last year) can’t be worse than the previous one, the Sunday Boston Globe featured a huge and multi-colored headline in the Ideas section: “Try Upbeat Nihilism in 2022.” It caught my eye for two reasons. First, it used what I thought was an oxymoron — how could nihilism ever be upbeat? Second, the recent chaotic years have left me questioning some of what I thought I knew, and casting about for new ideas.

After a first reading of the piece, I had to look up the preferred pronunciation (the first syllable mimics the name of the great Egyptian river), and establish a definition that, as Australian writer Wendy Syfret suggests in her essay and book of a similar name, sees past “the gloomy associations and depressed 19th century Germans” that commonly spring to mind.

Most dictionary definitions (and when did it happen that we have so many dictionaries that I can search for a definition that’s most useful to me; it’s like shopping for doctors until I get the diagnosis I want.) include the idea that nihilism rejects all systems of meaning (religions, political philosophies, family structures, jobs, love) and proposes that life itself is meaningless.

Syfret opts for a kinder, gentler, “sunnier” definition that suggests that life is meaningless in terms of most established measures of worth or accomplishment; she suggests admitting that “in the span of all time our presence is meaningless,” but suggests that this admission allows us to “take pleasure” in small actions and sensations and “in the random existence we were wildly lucky to be gifted at all.”

Yow! That was a lot for my slow, Sunday, New Year’s brain to dive into, trying (to use a most modern phrase) to get my head around finding pleasure in a meaningless world, when I was rescued by Amanda Gorman, the shining-star poet who lit up Biden’s inauguration like a comet impossibly close to earth. Her inauguration poem prompted praise from academics, writers like myself, and from those whose last experience with a poem might have been as a child with Dr. Seuss or Old Mother Hubbard. Last year, I wrote that watching her performance would be “the most moving and uplifting” few minutes “you’ve had in months.” I was right then and I’m right now when I repeat the same judgment confidently.

Her poem is music without melody, no instruments needed to carry the tones and resonance of her lyrics. Instead, she weaves words and presentation together with her magical spinning fingers and mesmerizing hands: now they conjure birds, then arrows pointing the way forward; first opposing then interlocking; demanding then welcoming; admitting conflict but inviting communion.

Her insistent alliteration and internal rhymes, her presentation of polar opposites that melt divisions, her use of the oldest language alongside the newest, demands our attention and rewards us with a vision that seems both tangible and spiritual at the same time.

Where does that leave sunny nihilism? Gorman doesn’t propose or espouse meaning through politics, work, or religion; she doesn’t directly suggest that love conquers all or that our ultimate purpose lies in a nuclear family. I see, instead, a commitment to community, the larger whole that defies labels and resists all demographics. Her works testify that “This Land is Our Land,” and that “The Times They are a Changin’.” She celebrates and expands the “we” in “We Shall Overcome” to include all who are willing to listen.

I’ll take Amanda Gorman over “sunny nihilism” every day. She’s no Pollyanna but certainly not one of the “gloomy . . . and depressed 19th century Germans” either.

Near the end of her article, Wendy Syfret refers to the “surreal miracle of our life” and the “absurd beauty of existence.” These possibilities, in my mind, provide meaning in a way that Amanda Gorman might embrace.

Allen Woods is a freelance writer, author of the Revolutionary-era crime novel “The Sword and Scabbard,” and Greenfield resident. His column appears regularly on a Saturday. Comments are welcome here or at


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