‘One Today’

01.21.13

Richard Blanco, Obama’s Historic Inauguration Poet

Hispanic, openly gay, and the youngest inauguration poet ever, Richard Blanco made a mark on Monday’s inauguration ceremony with his poem ‘One Today.’ David Freedlander on why it soared.

In terms of star wattage on the day, it ranked well below President Barack Obama’s address, Kelly Clarkson’s “My Country Tis of Thee,” and Beyoncé’s national anthem. Heck, it probably even generated more  cellphone checks and minds wandering than the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir or Chuck Schumer’s schticky emceeing.

But Richard Blanco’s sparse, simple yet sweeping inaugural poem “One Today,” may have provided one of the inauguration ceremony’s most memorable moments, and stood as a rare break from the staid custom of ceremony that the rest of the afternoon brought.

First, there was the presence of Blanco himself. Born in Spain to Cuban parents who fled the Castro regime, with his recitation today Blanco became the first Hispanic, the first openly gay man, and the first immigrant to recite an inaugural poem. And at 44, Blanco, who likes to say that he “was made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, and imported to the U.S.,” also became the youngest person to deliver an inaugural poem.

The poem, called “One Today,” was almost Whitman-esque in its sweep of the American landscape, with Blanco taking the audience on a grand tour of the continent:

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies…

It was current and political too, celebrating the nation’s diversity, and referencing the recent shooting massacre in Newtown, Conn.: “[T]he empty desks of twenty children marked absent today, and forever.”

The poem was in the vein of more contemporary poetry too in the way that it connected the personal and mundane facts of existence to larger spiritual and poetic forces, much as the work of celebrated contemporary poets like Galway Kinnell or W.S. Merwin does.

“The work acknowledges a recent tragedy to amplify its focus on identity and progress—and while it also recognizes sorrow, the poem nonetheless proves rich, almost incantatory, concerned with collective and individual possession and control, even in the broadest sense,” wrote William Wright, the editor of the Southern Poetry Anthology, in an email. “Overall, the poem is successful, art meant to orient, to reconfirm collective identity in a time of recent tragedy. It’s an optimistic, careful piece meant to encourage, a balm.”

Other scholars of contemporary poetry had similar praise.

“While Blanco is careful not to turn the poem into a confessional act, since its purpose is largely civic, he makes it true to his own experience in referring to his mother’s sacrifices as a cashier and his father’s as a cane cutter,” said Jahan Ramazani, an editor of The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. “In doing so, he makes vivid for us the specific sacrifices that make possible his act of writing the poem as well as the multitudinous sacrifices that stand behind the shared poetry of our daily experience. We are often reminded at such public ceremonies of the hardship of previous generations, but Blanco found a way to make it real in the immediacy of his example. In his references to hands, to breathing, to writing, and finally the naming constellations, he makes the poet’s activity emblematic of our shared humanity.”

The poem connected the personal and mundane facts of existence to larger spiritual and poetic forces.

The history of presidential poetry is not long, nor is it particularly storied. Robert Frost wrote a poem for John Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, but the overcast day prevented him from reading it, and he recited “The Gift Outright” instead. Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of the Morning” at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993 brought her international acclaim, but it was widely panned by fellow poets. Other addresses, including Miller Williams’s at Clinton’s second inaugural in 1993, and Elizabeth Alexander’s at Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, were largely forgettable.

“[It] was especially well suited to the occasion,” added Ramazani. “A more knotty or abstruse poem—even if it had a better chance of lasting or was more formally innovative, less conventional in its imagery or diction—would have missed the mark as an act of public address as well as poetry.”

The full poem, “One Today,” is below.

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning's mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the "I have a dream" we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won't explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.

One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father's cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.

The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day's gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.

Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me—in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.

One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.

One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn't give what you wanted.

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.