Leading up to his performance at Barack Obama’s second presidential inauguration, Richard Blanco’s biography—he is the first openly gay and first Latino Inaugural Poet—was the focus of the media. Last Monday, however, Blanco finally had a chance to let his poetry take center stage. Blanco’s inaugural poem, “One Today,” was and is a celebration of the shared American experience, an experience made possible not despite but because of our diverse individual histories and cultural backgrounds.
Blanco, like all inaugural poets, was presented with a true challenge: writing an inaugural poem that not only meets the requirements of the occasion but also stands on its own merits. Any inaugural poem must adopt a form, tone, and level of diction appropriate for consumption by millions of Americans, as well as a uniformly positive view of the nation that carefully avoids explicit and implicit criticism of our government. Given these restrictions (not to mention the severe time restrictions on writing the poem), Blanco succeeds admirably at the task.
Over the course of its nine stanzas (69 lines), “One Today” offers a sweeping view of America during a single day, from sunrise to sunset. The first stanza links geographically diverse areas of the country through the image of the rising sun:
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.
Each one of us, waking under “one light,” has a story tell, a set of daily routines and experiences that are the focus of the second stanza:
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.
In the final lines of this stanza, which to me softly echoes Walt Whitman’s catalog of the voices of American workers in “I Hear America Singing,” Blanco connects his own history—his mother’s many years working in a grocery story—to the routinized history of millions of other Americans who go to school, go to work, and sacrifice for their families.
Blanco continues the motif of “one light” suffusing our experiences in the third stanza, using it to illuminate the country’s collective hopes and sorrows through historical references to Martin Luther King, Jr., and the recent Newtown shooting:
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.
Blanco’s controlling image shifts in the next stanza from “one light” to “one ground,” and with it comes a subtle shift of focus to more tactile activities, activities involving the work of hands:
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.
By mentioning the sacrifices of his father, Blanco again weaves his family story into the shared cloth of American experience.
In the next two stanzas, the poem shifts focus from the tactile (“one ground”) to the aural (“one wind”):
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.
It is not only one light, but “one wind”—the breath that both forms and carries our words to each other—that joins us as a people. Our linguistic and cultural diversity do not delineate unbridgeable differences so much as demonstrate our deeper affinities.
The first lines of the next stanza offer a return to the natural landscapes described in the first stanza:
One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea.
The remainder of the stanza includes a final list of the products of our labor, before offering a more heightened image of American resolve symbolized by the Freedom Tower:
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.
The image of “one sky” is repeated in the next stanza, in which our eyes, and thoughts, are elevated from physical concerns to more personal, emotional reflections:
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.
In the final stanza the poem has completed its movement from sunup to sundown. It is now evening, and the moon and stars now become symbols of the shared American experience:
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
The poem’s “one” motif (“one sun”; “one light”; “one ground,” “one wind”; “one sky”) finds ultimate expression, and resolution, through the image of “one country” whose people are united by hope as we move into the future. To me it offers a fitting conclusion and message for an Inaugural poem. Please feel free to share your thoughts on Blanco’s poem in the comments.
History of Inaugural Poets
Five poets have read or recited poems at U.S. presidential inaugurations:
- Robert Frost recited “The Gift Outright” (text; video) at John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural. Frost recited the poem from memory after he was unable to read the text of the poem he’d written for the inauguration, “Dedication” (text), because of the sun’s glare upon the snow-covered ground.
- Maya Angelou read “On the Pulse of Morning” (text; video) at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inaugural.
- Miller Williams read “Of History and Hope” (text; MP3 audio from America.gov) at Bill Clinton’s 1997 inaugural.
- Elizabeth Alexander read “Praise Song for the Day” (text; video) at Barack Obama’s 2009 inaugural.
- Richard Blanco read “One Today” (text and video) at Barack Obama’s 2013 inaugural.
In addition, James Dickey read ”The Strength of Fields” (text) at Jimmy Carter’s January 19, 1977, inaugural gala at the Kennedy Center.