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Poetry at the Presidential inauguration: The Richard Blanco poem 'One Today,' its form and meaning

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Richard Blanco
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Richard Blanco became the fifth poet to read at a Presidential inauguration today. Advance publicity about the choice of Blanco emphasized that he was the youngest, first Latino, openly gay poet to act as an inaugural poet. The new poem he wrote for the occasion, “One Today,” garnered warm words from President Obama (to be expected), and from Beyonce (who could be seen congratulating him afterward on national broadcasts). Here’s the text, followed by some analysis of it:

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 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.

“One Today” is a fine example of public poetry, in keeping with Blanco’s other work: Loose, open lines of mostly conversational verse, a flexible iambic pentameter stanza form. (My apologies to the poet if the version I reprinted here does not reproduce his line-breaks as he wrote them — the many versions that have popped up on the internet vary in this regard.) The poem takes its structure from its title: It follows America over the course of one day, from sunrise to sunset. It dips into autobiography, mentioning Blanco’s working-class origins in his father “cutting sugarcane” and his mother toiling in a grocery store “for twenty years, so I could write this poem” — the sort of anecdotal locution that President Obama himself likes to employ in speeches. Real-world events elements stud the poem — the reference to the Newtown, CT, shootings in “the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain/the empty desks of twenty children marked absent/today, and forever”; the mention of “the Freedom Tower” and to Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

Blanco is making a heroic effort to take in as much of America as he can, filling the poem with sights and sounds of urban, suburban, and rural landscapes and cities. He returns again and again to the notion of “one”-ness — that on this one day as on all days, we all gaze up at “one sky, our sky” — that is, the American sky, against which we write our hopes and dreams and frustrations and elations.

There are times here when Blanco overreaches in his rhetoric (that awkward image of faces “crescendoing into our day”), and other times when he limns a scene with impeccable vividness: of “one sun” “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.”

Ultimately, “One Today” is a humble, modest poem, one presented to a national audience as a gift of comradeship, and in the context of political, pop, and media culture, a quiet assertion that poetry deserves its place in our thoughts on this one day, and every day.

Twitter: @kentucker

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