For poetry, an art form that debatably peaked many years ago, any opportunity to assume center stage is a tremendous blessing. One of these opportunities presented itself this past Monday at the second inauguration of President Barack Obama. With the omnipresent reach of live news coverage, poet Richard Blanco graced televisions and computer screens all over the globe. Americans with varying levels of exposure to poetry listened as Blanco read his poem “One Today.” On my television, the cameras cut away from Blanco to the national mall, alternating between close-ups of audience members. One of these short glimpses captured a man leaning against a railing, engrossed by something on his smart phone, while others leaned around him straining for a view of the poet on the podium. Conversely, the cameras cut away during a poignant part of Blanco’s poem to a wide-eyed older woman as a tear carved a warm path down her hardened cheek. She nodded at Blanco’s references to struggles and inequalities with the type of self-assurance that is earned from a life well lived. Her reaction was the most beautiful thing I saw all day. More beautiful than the first family. More beautiful than the crowd shot of a sea of American flags waving from the Capitol all the way to the Lincoln Memorial. More beautiful than the President and Chief Justice saying all the right words and not needing a do-over this time. And, dare I say, more beautiful than Beyoncé. In camera work that some might describe as manipulative, I did not see artificial sincerity; no, I saw poetry in motion.
Step back for a moment and consider the poet’s role at the inauguration. The poet is tasked with using an art form that is the equivalent of speaking in tongues for a large portion of the population to celebrate the day. He follows in the footsteps of other inaugural poets such as Robert Frost and Maya Angelou. His message should be one that reaches and touches upon all the colors of the increasingly diverse and disparate American tapestry. He will never outperform the world-class musicians singing and playing with every teaspoon of talent they have in them. And he cannot overshadow the president, who himself is tasked with speaking in a forceful, visionary, and poetic manner about the health and future of our nation. Forgive me if I think this brief job description sounds remarkably difficult. Essentially, the poet delivering a poem at a Presidential Inauguration is being given all the tools needed to craft his own unique brand of sputtering, esoteric failure. Even Walt Whitman, the high priest of all-inclusive American poetry, would find the task of crafting a modern inauguration poem to be herculean and mildly sadistic.
Taking into account these circumstances and all of the wholly unique pressures he felt and prescriptions he had to abide by, I think Richard Blanco acquitted himself nicely and delivered a solid poem. The woman I saw on the television being moved by Blanco’s poem is the perfect measurement of the success of an inauguration poem. “One Today” moved some to tears and settled others into indifference. Have the poem’s lines echoed out this week at bus stops, sushi bars, and in Walmarts? Probably not. Is Richard Blanco the hot new face being followed on Access Hollywood and TMZ? Nope. Will the poem stand up on the page as a piece of art for years to come? Who knows. Still, these aren’t the expectations we should have for an inaugural poem and the poet who delivers it. In an interview with the Academy of American Poets, Blanco highlighted that for him, writing a poem is a discovery process. If we look at “One Today” through that lens, we can see that Blanco was seeking to discover himself, our country, and a place in our country right now for all of us who feel lost. We are a divided nation. Contentiousness is common; rather than starting with clean slates, we are immediately wary of others who think differently than ourselves, even on seemingly miniscule issues. What we would have called paranoia just a few decades before is now normal. This is the social climate that Blanco retrieved from the top shelf of our country’s stuffed closets and unfurled. He didn’t need to smooth the edges because he found America in the clumps. He referenced the tragedy in Newtown and 9/11. He used his words as pushpins dropped all over our country’s map. In this way the poem reminded me of some of the patriotic songs that splash our nation’s natural beauty while bolstering pride. He referenced communities spanning many rungs on our socioeconomic ladder, including a remarkably effective personal moment where he turned inward to acknowledge his mother’s years of ringing up groceries so he “could write this poem.”
Richard Blanco wrote a wildly ambitious poem. He wrote a poem meant to discover America, to capture America, to sustain America, and hopefully to entertain America, when achieving just one of those aims would have been enough to consider the poem a rousing success. Did he achieve all of these objectives? Was his poem doomed by his far too ambitious scope? We live in a nation known for many freedoms, including freedom of expression. I think I’ll let each of you decide for yourself.
– Matthew Kaberline is a graduate of Virginia Tech and Emerson College. He has published his poems in Tar River Poetry, Redivider, and Sou’wester. He edits We Convince By Our Presence, a National Poetry Month blog.