Monday, 21 January 2013

Obama's Inauguration Poem : 'One Today' by Richard Blanco

Obama's inauguration, featuring Richard Blanco's poetry. Image from guardian.co.uk

I'm sure that a lot of you will have watched Obama's inauguration today. I did, and I'm not even American. I presumed that my American housemate was going to, but she bluntly replied that she was not. I think she wanted Romney to win the elections, and so I didn't tell her afterwards how I enjoyed Obama's speech. I particularly liked the sections on immigration and striving towards success regardless of circumstance, in case you have more interest than her. I didn't think that the speech ended in a very memorable manner, but I could only wish to be such a great speaker. 

I though that I'd post the inaugural poem read by Richard Blanco: the youngest, first immigrant, first Latino, and first openly gay person to be a U.S. inaugural poet. That sentence was very hard to word (I hope it makes sense!) I wasn't sure about some parts of this poem, but after reading it through I'm more favourable towards it. I think that the personal elements of the poem will be relatable to many readers and listeners, and that they will give the poem more chance of being remembered. Personally, the phrase "hands as worn as my father's cutting sugarcane/ so my brother and I could have books and shoes" will stick with me for long to come. 

There have only been four inaugural poets (as far as the website I read this from can tell): Robert Frost read at John Kennedy’s 1961 swearing-in, Maya Angelou read at Bill Clinton's first inauguration, in 1993, and Miller Williams at his second, in 1997. In 2009 Elizabeth Alexander read her poem “Praise Song for the Day” at Obama’s first inaugural, and then Blanco read "One Today", well, today. Reading poetry at such events should certainly become more common practice.

However, the link I've referred to in the last paragraph suggests why there have only been four poets. For one, cunning presidents may realise the danger of letting a skilled poet detract attention from their own speech. Also, there's an early example of the poetic practice not succeeding entirely: on JFK's inauguration, the weather did not cooperate with ceremonial plans. Snow had fallen heavily, and the sunlight blinded Frost, despite Lyndon Johnson’s best efforts to use his top hat to shield Frost’s paper. Frost was unable to read "Dedication", a poem written especially for the occasion, and was left to recite from memory some lines of another poem of his: "The Gift Outright". However, you cannot dismiss the replacement poem as irrelevant. In fact, it was perfect for its purpose (you can read it online here).

"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 sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
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.

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.


2 comments:

tolstoytherapy said...

Thank you for the comment! I'm also still mulling over the poem - as it's so long, there's a lot to consider.

Yes, I think Obama must have worked with a very clever speech writer! I can understand why my Mitt Romney-favouring housemate did not wish to watch the inauguration.

At such political occasions words are incredibly powerful.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for posting this! I am a little bit of a political junkie but did not get to watch many of the ceremonies due to the fact that I needed to work. I had heard a little bit about Blanco before yesterday but had never before read his work. I am not sure what I think about this poem, I want to think about it for a few days.


I liked the speech also. Without getting too much into it however there were some subtle digs at the ideas of the opposition so I could see that someone who had different views from my own might not like it so much.