An entire nation listened as our 44th President, Barack Obama, swore the oath signifying his position for four more years as commander and chief of the United States of America. Along with the historic pageantry, we were treated to a superb choir, the marine band, three celebrity singers and a young poet. This last position, that of Inaugural Poet, was first created for Robert Frost by President Kennedy. More than three decades later Bill Clinton too called on a poet to recite, that poet being Maya Angelou. Both Frost and Angelou were already acclaimed poets with followers that branched far beyond the modest recognition most literary writers attain, yet Obama sought out the relatively obscure Richard Blanco.
As Blanco came to the podium I could not help but think how unused to poetry we Americans have become. How rarely we listen as images and ideas filtered through emotions are recited to us. What a challenge this presents poets who face our world and try to reach all of us…
In his inaugural poem, Blanko evoked Americana from one shore clear across to the other, showing us “millions of faces” along the way. As images of day came “yawning to life” I was reminded of Woody Guthrie, “spreading a simple truth across the Great Plains” and Walt Whitman, who dare as he may would have loved “apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows begging our praise.” Blanco pushes forward:
“All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
The same light on blackboard’s 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…”
Words that conjure our own prophet of peace, Martin Luther King, Jr., brandished alongside the irrevocable violence one citizen caused our nation’s children, clustered in a stanza that shot us toward “one light breathing color into stained glass” and onward to mothers whose living children still “slide into the day.” Our paradox. Dreaming for a better tomorrow as we mourn heinous violence. Our conundrum. A country of staunch individualists desperate for bridging commonality.
Mid-way through his poem Blanco pauses on a one word sentence. He directs us to “Breathe.” Essential to life. Essential to maintain our planet. Essential to any agenda is the very air that sustains us. A physical reminder of the living current sweeping around our globe carrying all the sounds and minerals we infuse it with all day long.
Air is not the only commonality that Blanco evokes, “One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes” brought us up off the earth toward the same hopeful place Maya Angelo suggested in her extraordinary inaugural poem twenty years ago:
“Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the Dream.”
Returning to Blanco’s poem, in the final imagery he brings us home in “the plum blush of dusk.” Reminding us to keep our eyes up,
“…And always one moon
Like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop…”
Blanco dances us along this journey, this homage to time, from the natural world to our familial lineage, captured into one day, “One Today.” Blanco beckons us all to follow with new resolutions, with possibilities streaming from the “Freedom Tower” to a backyard “clothes line” with determination from migrant workers to algebra teachers to find life-sustaining hope. Perhaps, in remembrance of our poets and the syllables they count in crafted meter, the echo of the past they cull from dusty shelves to the “new constellation” yet unnamed, poetry itself is calling us to join together.
For what else can we offer each other, if not the chance to make a better today, to circle back home at the end of it, nestle in to the warmth found there, and know we each did our very best for each other.
Please note: All references come from Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem, “One Today,” with the exception of Maya Angelou’s 1993 inaugural poem, “A Rock, A River, A Tree.” Follow the above links for the complete text.