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