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.
My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight