The HyperTexts

Richard Blanco's Inaugural Poem: “One Today”

Richard Blanco's poem "One Today" was recited by Blanco at President Barack Obama's second inauguration, on January 21, 2013. The full text of the poem appears on this page, after an in-depth analysis and comments about what appear to be some very interesting last-minute revisions. Blanco's literary bio and background information about the poem are also included below. (If you are looking for―or are interested in―Donald Trump's Inaugural Poem, please click the hyperlink.)

review and analysis by Michael R. Burch


Analysis

Richard Blanco's poem "One Today" is a good—and commendable—example of occasional poetry. In this case the special occasion was President Barack Obama's second inauguration ceremony. You can watch Blanco reciting his poem on YouTube, if you care to look it up. Blanco, the gay son of Cuban exiles, is the fifth American poet to be chosen to write an inaugural poem, and the youngest poet to be granted that honor. Previous inaugural poets include Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Miller Williams and Elizabeth Alexander.

Purpose

Blanco described his desire to create a poem of unity and love, as he believed the occasion demanded.

Influences

Walt Whitman is the most obvious of Blanco's influences. These lines by Blanco seem especially Whitmanesque:

... through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways ...

Singer-songwriters like Woody Guthrie may be another Blanco influence. These lines are reminiscent of "this land is our land" and "amber waves of grain":

One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat and hands ...

Blanco is also informed and influenced by his personal experience as the son of Cuban exiles. As he said himself, "The poem was about the immigrant story."

History

Richard Blanco became the fifth inaugural poet. He is the first inaugural poet without any obvious connection to the president being inaugurated. Here are quick capsule summaries of the first four inaugural poets:

Robert Frost, considered by many to be the last major American poet, was the first inaugural poet. He read his poem "The Gift Outright" at John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961. Like Kennedy, Frost called Massachusetts home. Also, Frost been an avid supporter of Kennedy, predicting that he would become president even before his candidacy was announced. When Stewart Udall suggested that Frost take part in the inauguration ceremonies, Kennedy jokingly responded, "Oh, no. You know that Robert Frost always steals any show he is part of." Kennedy, a poetry lover, asked Frost to recite his poem "The Gift Outright" and even requested a revision to the last line from "such as she would become" to "such as she will become." Frost assented to the revision. He also composed a new poem, "Dedication," which was later renamed "For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration." But when Frost stood to recite the poems, the wind and bright sunlight made the reading them impossible. Fortunately he was able to recite "The Gift Outright" from memory. The Washington Post reported that Frost "stole the hearts of the Inaugural crowd," just as Kennedy had predicted.

Maya Angelou was the second inaugural poet, reciting her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at Bill Clinton's first inauguration in 1993. Like Clinton, she was born in Arkansas. Whereas Frost seemed to praise colonialism (if in a somewhat ambivalent manner), Angelou spoke strongly against the greed of invaders who were "desperate for gain, hungry for gold." She challenged Americans to no longer lie "face down in ignorance ... armed for slaughter" but to "study war no more" and to "come, clad in peace." 

Miller Williams was the third inaugural poet, reciting his poem "Of History and Hope" at Bill Clinton's second inauguration in 1997. Like Clinton and Angelou he was a native Arkansan. In a similar spirit to Angelou's, if in a less passionate voice, he spoke for national unity and not letting "ignorance spread itself like rot."

Elizabeth Alexander was the fourth inaugural poet, reciting her poem "Praise Song for the Day" at Barack Obama's first inauguration in 2009. Like Maya Angelou, she is a black female poet. She was the first inaugural poet not to have been born or lived in the same state as the incoming president. But her brother Mark was a senior adviser to Barack Obama's campaign, so there was a political connection. While she may be among the least-known and least-celebrated of the inaugural poets, I believe she wrote some of the strongest lines; for example:

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,
picked the cotton and the lettuce,
built brick by brick the glittering edifices ...

In-Depth Analysis

Richard Blanco's "One Today" is a free verse poem composed in a flexible or "loose" approximation of iambic pentameter. (Robert Frost once postulated that the only English meters are iambic and loose iambic.) The poem is an occasional poem (one written for a specific occasion). It is also an example of public poetry. It may also be considered an "Everyman" poem because most of its images and metaphors seem likely to connect with the majority of readers who are not literary snobs. The poem is somewhat Whitmanesque both in style and in its probable appeal to commoners (I use the term in its most positive sense). Like Walt Whitman, an obvious influence, Blanco blends images and sounds skillfully to help convey his meaning, although he falls short of Whitman in sheer musicality (but then who doesn't?). For instance, here is how Blanco describes the sun rising over American rooftops, creating an image that in a few words conveys how little we sometimes know about even our closest neighbors:

One light, waking up rooftops.
Under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving across windows.

The poem follows the sun in flight over the United States in the course of a single day, from sunrise in the East to sunset in the West, perhaps borrowing from Archibald MacLeish's magnificent poem about the transit of the sun and time, "You, Andrew Marvell." Blanco's main theme is unity in diversity: while Americans are individuals, they still share the same sun, wind and land. For example:

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 ...

And later:

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.

Also:

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.

The last line is especially good, and catches this reader's interest the way an unexpected songbird on a pedestrian clothesline might. I wouldn't be surprised if the songbird represents Everyman poets like Whitman and Blanco, surprising us with their word-songs.

The poem's theme and metaphors are so simple and accessible they might have easily become cartoonish, but the poet's obvious sincerity, thankfulness and humility help keep that from happening.

There are, however, a few passages where Blanco seems to be reaching or perhaps even straining to be poetic. For instance, faces "crescendoing into our day", whatever that means, and fruit stands full of multi-hued orbs "begging our praise" like rainbows. That's not what rainbows seem to do, to me. I would suggest that they inspire or invite our praise, or are just simply beautiful and don't give a damn whether we praise them or not. Such occasional laxness keeps the poem from being a masterpiece, in my opinion, but still it's a good, strong poem and I like it despite what I perceive as minor flaws here and there.

Since the poem was written for the masses, I think we can safely consider it to be a success, if perhaps not achieving the ultimate heights of Parnassus (the mountain sacred to Apollo and home to the Muses). 

The poem was not only written for President Barack Obama's second inauguration ceremony, but also to be read on Martin Luther King Day. Therefore, the poem's theme of unity seems not only appropriate, but spot on. The poem is most successful, in my opinion, when it is most personal. For instance, when the poet mentions his mother ringing up groceries for twenty years and his father cutting sugarcane, in order to provide him not only with the stuff of life, but with a future as a poet—one able to read his composition at a president's swearing-in ceremony. Blanco also mentions his mother being the giving kind, but his father not being able to give him whatever it was that he wanted or needed. Affection, perhaps? In any case, Blanco's mingling of the universal and the personal helps keep the poem from becoming just another jingoistic bit of fluff.

The poem tenderly elegizes the twenty children who died at Sandy Hook and are now forever absent, invokes America's "fruited grain" and includes Whitman-like images of honking cabs, lurching buses and symphonic feet. There is much to like and appreciate here, and little to quibble with. If I was grading the poem strictly on its own merits, I might give it a B+. But it's more than just a poem, being a national call to unity and tolerance, so for ably fulfilling its main purpose, I will give it a solid A.

(Possible) Revisions

The poem Richard Blanco read aloud seems to have a few "divergences" from the official version released by the White House—that is, assuming the "official versions" can be trusted, which is not a given. If the official versions are accurate, it seems the self-described "night-owl" poet may have been revising the poem up till the last minute. I have underlined parts of the poem that seem to have been revised in the recited version of the poem:

One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving across windows. ["behind" was replaced with "across"]

the pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights, ["the" was added]

fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows ["limes" was added]

... to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem for all of us today. [the words "for all of us today" were added]

... or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into the sky that yields to our resilience. ["a" was replaced by "the"]

However, another possibility is that some of the texts floating around on the ether may have been missing words due to errors on the part of the ether-izers. It will be interesting to see if Blanco publishes the "authoritative" version of the poem and identifies the revisions he made, if indeed he revised the poem after the "official" version had been released.

Background


Richard Blanco, the son of Cuban exiles, is the first Latino inaugural poet, the first openly gay inaugural poet, and the youngest inaugural poet (age 44). But before anyone mutters “It’s about damn time!” please allow me to point out that Blanco is only the fifth inaugural poet, so there is no long, tawdry history of discrimination to bemoan. Nor have there been any really outrageous selections. The first inaugural poet, Robert Frost, is generally considered to be a major poet. Maya Angelou may the only living American poet who can justly be called a celebrity today. (Moreover, she’s a black woman.) Granted, the names of the other inaugural poets would make great trivia questions, if one was in charge of trying to avoid turning game show contestants into instant millionaires. For instance, Miller Williams is much less famous than his daughter, three-time Grammy award winner Lucinda Williams. But to be honest and fair, after Frost and Angelou, there aren’t any major stars in the poetic constellations to be discriminated against. The remaining inaugural poet, Elizabeth Alexander, is a black woman. So white heterosexual male inaugural poets are currently outnumbered three-to-two by their diverse peers.

Is it possible that Blanco’s heritage and homosexuality factored into his selection? Yes, that seems likely, and if he was a bad or mediocre poet that would bother me. But fortunately he’s a good and worthy poet, so as the basketball saying goes, where there’s no harm, there’s no foul.

An inaugural committee’s spokeswoman, Addie Whisenant, said President Obama picked Blanco because the poet’s “deeply personal poems are rooted in the idea of what it means to be an American.”

Fame (or lack thereof) aside, Richard Blanco is an interesting poet because his poetry is engaging, sincere, unpretentious and accessible. Dare one say that he is anti-poetic, if measured by the rule of the rulers of the poetry establishment? Blanco cannot be much of a poet, if we are to believe America’s most famous literary critic, Harold Bloom, who insists that poetry is an “elitist art” in which “cognitive difficulty” is to be greatly prized. But then Bloom left his appointed stars of cognitive difficulty — John Ashbery and A. R. Ammons — out of his own anthology of the best English poems. And some of Ashbery’s poems that were recommended to me by a friend recently are surprisingly accessible. Furthermore, I am reminded that I was able to like (and understand) the best poems of the best English language poets as a young boy. Is it possible that difficulty and obscurity have been overrated — perhaps even falsely idolized — and that poetry is finally making a u-turn back towards accessibility? If so, will that give poetry a chance to once again become a popular art form? Might Blanco be one of the poets to lead such a revival?

Who can say, but one can certainly hope.

Blanco is a civil engineer by education and trade. This quote appears at the very top of his website’s main page:

“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” — William Wordsworth

In an interview with The Poetry Foundation, Blanco says he's been writing, “Literally around the clock. I’m a night owl, so that means until 4 a.m., and back up at 9, 9:30, getting back on the computer.”

This version of “One Today” was read by Richard Blanco at the Inauguration on Martin Luther King Day, January 21, 2013:

One Today

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 across windows.

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
the 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 for all of us today.

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 all 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
each day for each other, 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 the 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, 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

The HyperTexts