Inaugural Poem 2013

Four years ago I watched live streaming coverage of the Inauguration from my office at school. I was interested in President Obama’s speech, but I was as equally interested in hearing the inaugural poem by Elizabeth Alexander. Today, I sit in my living room listening to NPR’s coverage and watching live streaming (on mute). Once again, I anticipate the President’s speech but I also anticipate the inaugural poem, this year written by poet Richard Blanco. 

Richard Blanco. Photo courtesy of ABC News.

Richard Blanco will be the first Hispanic inaugural poet and the first openly gay one. He is also the fourth inaugural poet; the first being Robert Frost at JFK’s inauguration in 1961. Writing an inaugural poem seems an almost impossible task. Frost himself penned the poem linked above for the occasion, but could not read it and ended up reciting The Gift Outright.  Elizabeth Alexander was criticized heavily for her interpretation of the task, but how many poets could possibly please everyone when it comes to this assignment? Past Presidents seem to agree, as this article from The Christian Science Monitor observes:

But when second-generation Cuban Richard Blanco steps to the podium during President Obama’s Jan. 21 second-term inaugural ceremonies, he’ll be only the fourth poet to participate in such proceedings. Robert Frost, who read at John Kennedy’s 1961 swearing-in, was the first, as near as we can tell. Bill Clinton had two: Maya Angelou, in 1993, and Miller Williams, in 1997. In 2009 Elizabeth Alexander read her poem “Praise Song for the Day” at Mr. Obama’s first inaugural. Now Mr. Blanco will follow her. That’s it.

JFK and Robert Frost. Photo courtesy of The New Yorker.

The article goes on to speculate that the reason for this may be that the President doesn’t want to be overshadowed by the poet. The article refers to a story about JFK and Robert Frost, but I think it also has to do with the previously mentioned difficulty of the task. I mean, you sit down and write a poem about America in a month that will be read to millions of people. Not to mention it will live on in annals of history and you see if that doesn’t give you reason to pause.

Blanco is said to have been inspired by Walt Whitman and commented in an NPR interview:

This whole idea of place and identity and what’s home and what’s not home, and which is in some ways such an American question that we’ve been asking since, you know, since [Walt] Whitman, trying to put that finger on America. 

I think Whitman would agree with Blanco and he would also agree that we are a long way from “putting our finger on America” but maybe that is just what makes America great?  

I Hear America Singing
by Walt Whitman
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear, Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong, The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam, The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work, The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck, The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands, The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown, The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing, Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else, The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly, Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

One Today
by Richard Blanco

“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 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 cafe 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


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