One by one the lamps were all extinguished, except that Mr. Carmichael, who liked to lie awake a little reading Virgil, kept his candle burning rather longer than the rest… [Mr. Carmichael brought out a volume of poems that spring, which had an unexpected success. The war, people said, had revived their interest in poetry] (Woolf, To the Lighthouse). Much like the characters in Woolf’s novel, we too, only yesterday, took a step away from our four year war against lies and misinformation, against bigotry and racism, against incivility and immorality, seeking solace from an elder statesman and a young poet, and on a historic Inauguration day, we got more than we could have hoped for in the wisdom of President Biden and the spoken poetry of Amanda Gorman. Unity. Light. A reminder of our America.
Last week while still in Louisville I had the good fortune to hear Richard Blanco retell his story: from immigrant to inaugural poet for Obama in 2013. The story he shared is fabulous, filled with colorful elaboration, detailing his parents’ bold move from Cuba to Miami, recalling his fascinating childhood to his own journey as a poet. He moved his audience to tears and laughter, from the nostalgia of the past to the shared hope for the future. His story touched us all as pieces of it became our own. How he was picked by the White House is a mystery, even to him, but once we all heard his voice ring out over the capital on that cold January day, that no longer mattered. Richard Blanco is all of us.
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…