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The Hazards of Inaugural Poetry

For the sixth time in presidential history, a poet was invited to participate in the inaugural festivities. With the exception of Lyndon Johnson, every Democrat since John F. Kennedy—and no Republican—has had an inaugural poet. Make of that fact what you will.

A few “occasional poems” (that is, poems specifically tailored to a given occasion) have survived the test of time: Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” W. B. Yeats’s “A Prayer for my Daughter.” Most, though, do not flourish in our cultural memory, probably because good art usually cannot be produced and delivered on demand.

Robert Frost fulfilled his inaugural assignment in 1961 by writing a preface to a poem he had already written. The preface, “Dedication,” is a long and unlovely prelude to the wonderful poem, “The Gift Outright,” that Frost called “a history of the United States in a dozen lines of blank verse” (though it’s actually 16 lines long). Fortuitously, or perhaps intentionally, “Dedication” was not actually read at the inauguration. Frost claimed, variously, that the wind blew the pages of the preface out of his hand as he was about to read them, that the sun was in his eyes, and that the type was too small. He read only “The Gift Outright,” which he knew by heart.

James Dickey read his poem “The Strength of Fields” at Jimmy Carter’s inaugural ball rather than at the ceremony proper, so he’s usually left off the list of inaugural poets (perhaps Carter was worried about whether the famously rowdy poet could be relied upon to behave decorously at the ceremony).

Maya Angelou and Miller Williams read their poems for Bill Clinton’s inaugurations.  Elizabeth Alexander, professor and chair of African American studies at Yale, read “Praise Song for the Day” at President Obama’s first inauguration—a poem that resonates with simple, powerful, Whitmanesque images of determination and progress.

Yesterday these poets were joined by a young, gay, Latino poet named Richard Blanco, who has taught at Central Connecticut State University, American University, and Georgetown University, and now lives (untethered by any academic appointment) in Maine. He was originally trained as a civil engineer—he describes himself in the author’s note to one of his books, Directions to the Beach of the Dead, as “a builder of bridges and poems.” Last month he was asked to write and submit three possible poems to Obama’s inaugural committee, and “One Today” was their overwhelming choice.

Blanco’s poetry is about himself and about America—about himself as an American, as an element in the melting pot of assimilation, as a transmitter of his family’s memories of Cuban exile, as a gay man finding and celebrating his identity in the face of parochial prejudices. In richly textured verse, arroz-con-frijoles, paso dobles, and cafecito brush up seamlessly against Starbucks, Humvees, and infomercials.

In his most recent book, Looking for the Gulf Motel, a poem called “Queer Theory: According to My Grandmother” recounts a lifetime of homophobic injunctions: “Never drink soda with a straw”; “Avoid hugging men, but if you must, / pat them real hard / on the back”; “Don’t draw rainbows or flowers or sunsets.”

Blanco—who, according to his Web site, has a “poetry dance—a little Michael Jackson-inspired shtick I do around the house in my pajamas when I am high from a good-poem day”—was a great choice for the inaugural honor. But “One Today,” in my opinion, falls flat. It reads like an early draft of what could be a good poem. I’m trying to restrain automatic prejudice against quickly made-to-order poetry, but I find the effort slapdash, and simply not very coherent.

It’s full of clichés: the din of honking cabs and buses, a songbird on a clothesline, the sun rising over the Rockies. Emotional clichés too: the father who, early in the poem, worked hard so that the son could have books and shoes, but still, later in the poem, couldn’t give his child what he wanted; the mother who rang up groceries so that the poet could write this poem. (Poets should be very wary of writing poems about writing poems.)

The title itself is awkward, elusive. Today we are one? There is only one today? Every day is today? I’m not sure.

Blanco’s imagery doesn’t resonate as clever or creative—which is, of course, the burden of poetry: pencil-yellow school buses, squeaky playground swings, the plum blush of dusk, the moon like a silent drum tapping on the rooftops. The word “howdy” should probably never appear in a poem, and certainly not sandwiched among a polyglot smorgasbord of howdies: shalom, buon giorno, namaste, buenos dias. “Crescendoing” is another word that feels out of place.

Blanco strains to bring in the 9/11 attacks, juxtaposing the handiwork of a person making the first brush stroke of a painting with that of someone completing “the last floor on the Freedom Tower / jutting into a sky that yields to our resistance.” I find this dubious, gratuitous.

Even more unexpectedly, Blanco works in a reference to the Newtown killings, in a passage that’s especially difficult to follow. A stanza that begins with images of learning and imagination takes a forced detour to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and ends oddly—it’s not clear how we got here—with churches, museums, and parks. Amid all this, in a jolting scene that strikes me as impious and insufficiently thought out, Blanco meanders into “the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain / the empty desks of twenty children marked absent / today, and forever.”

It’s not that poetry can’t or shouldn’t invoke last month’s massacre—but the decision to broach this tremendously raw tragedy should be accompanied by a sensitive, courageous, meaningful treatment that does justice to the pain as it is recalled in the poem.  There’s a heavy responsibility in writing about this. I don’t know exactly what is the right way to remember those poor children, but “marked absent / today, and forever” is not it. This misstep is a symptom of what’s too undigested, too unsettled, about “One Today” as a whole.

I think Blanco’s intent—a sensible one for the occasion—was to create a vast, varied portrait of our country. It’s the kind of task that Alexander achieved more subtly and comfortably in her poem four years ago, a smooth confluence of cultural and historical images which contrasted quotidian American life and the monumentally historic importance of Obama’s first inauguration day. Alexander’s poem has many thematic similarities with Blanco’s (children and parents, the hard work of living each day, the awe of a unifying moment in America), but she succeeds, where Blanco fails, at handling the task eloquently. I guess she works well under deadlines.

“One Today” is a frenetic mishmash.  No poetry dances here, I’m afraid.

Randy Malamud is Regents’ professor and chair of English at Georgia State University.

 

“One Today”

By Richard Blanco

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 café 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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