Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Post-Walt: Reflections on the 2013 Inaugural Poem

A couple weeks ago, my cousin mentioned he had watched the inauguration, so I asked what he thought about the inaugural poem, "One Today" by Richard Blanco.  He confessed he wasn't fond of it because it jumped around and included everything from puppies to butterflies to rainbows.  I hadn't yet read it or watched it, but I immediately suspected Blanco was going for the sort of wide-ranging cataloging pioneered by Walt Whitman.  There is something very American, after all, in the eclectic and expansive spirit behind such cataloging.

But when I read Blanco's poem, I confess that I, too, was disappointed.  I shared my reasons with several friends who do not have poetry backgrounds, and I realized that I take the skill of close reading for granted.  So in case any of you out there had a similar negative reaction to the inaugural poem but couldn't quite put your finger on why, you might enjoy taking a look at my thoughts.  And if you have a close reading or opinion of your own, please share it in the comments section below.

To articulate why Blanco's poem leaves me cold, I'd like to continue the comparison to Whitman.  You'll find listing and cataloging throughout Whitman's works; "I Hear America Singing" offers a good and manageable sample.  You can read the poem here

Now take a look at a stanza from Blanco's 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.

Look at that first line: "All of us as vital as the one light we move through."  There's a very prosy and prosaic quality here that falls flat, and it falls flat because it delivers its message in a direct, blatant manner.  Compare that to Whitman, who never says "All of our songs are vital to America"; instead, that message is embedded in the spirit of the poem, and he never uses the hackneyed imagery of "light" over and over as the above stanza does.  Lest you think I'm picking on this piece of Blanco's poem unfairly, check out the final stanza where you'll find even more tired ideas: stars, mapping constellations, hope.  

In the stanza above, the diction itself is unoriginal: equations to solve (check, yes, that is what one does with equations); history to question (again, nothing fresh here); the impossible vocabulary of sorrow (unspeakable tragedy, anyone?).  How prosaic; how predictable; how it fails to sing.  An advocate of Blanco's poem might argue that the mundane quality is part of the point of his vision of America, but I don't see support for such a reading.  Instead, the poem strives to create a sense of awe towards the varied world, as in the "gorgeous din of honking cabs, buses launching down avenues" in stanza  5.   Phrases like these seem to ask us to find the poetic in the everyday, but to me, a descriptive verb like "launching" or an adjective like "gorgeous" sounds more like the effort of a student completing an exercise in descriptive writing than the authentic ring of originality.  Blanco, like Whitman, writes in what we would call American plain style.  The difference is that Whitman never tries to contort a verb into imprecise description that sounds vaguely poetic, like "yawning to life" (stanza 2) or "crescendoing into our day" (ibid).  

Clearly I'm not a fan of "One Today," but I'm even less a fan of it as an inaugural poem because it is, in my opinion, unforgivably tied to the self.  Lines like "my father’s cutting sugarcane so my brother and I could have books and shoes" and "ring up groceries as my mother did for twenty years, so I could write this poem" insert the poet himself, Richard Blanco, into the poem.  The "I" in Whitman, by comparison, is a sort of universal or bardic "I," not I, Walt Whitman.  

Whitman, of course, never wrote an inaugural poem.  But Frost's "The Gift Outright," which was an inaugural poem, uses a poetic, bardic voice, not the voice of Frost the individual.  (Notice, too, how it leaves the reader with an emotion, a sense of the country's past, and a thought-provoking twist in those final lines.) Like Frost, Elizabeth Alexander, last term's inaugural poet, spoke in terms of "we", and when "I" surfaces in her "Praise Song for the Day," it is in the voice of others who have come before: 
We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.
I know there’s something better down the road.

Perhaps all this talk of American poetry has left you hungry for more.  Or better yet, maybe you want to exercise your own close-reading muscles.  You might enjoy picking up a copy of The Poets Laureate Anthology, which represents America's poets laureate from 1937, when the first Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress was named, to 2009. Yes, I worked on the book as permissions coordinator; no, I don't benefit from your purchase of a copy.  I can simply vouch for it as a quality book, and one that comes to mind when thinking of poetry and American government.


  1. I was disappointed with this poem too. No subtlety at all - and isn't that the whole point of poetry? To say things with fewer words than you would need to explain your idea in prose? Great post. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for the comment--lack of subtlety is a good way of putting it. I'm willing to cut some slack when we're talking an inaugural poem; it needs to communicate a little more clearly on a first reading. But that doesn't mean there shouldn't be subtlety when you hold it up to a close reading. "The Gift Outright" really works that way, and it's interesting to compare that Frost didn't write it for the inauguration; he had published it in the '40s. This is an interesting article about it: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20540

    1. What an interesting story! It's a great beginning to the tradition of having a poet read at inaugurations. Hopefully the next poem lives up to that history a little better.

  3. I'm glad you posted this. I was going to ask you what you thought about Blanco's poem.

    I'm glad you mentioned "The Gift Outright," too. The parenthetical line in that poem helps me to understand that one of the major problems with "One Today" is its lack of ambiguity. Frost shows why ambiguity is so valuable. First, the emotional ambiguity that the parenthetical line creates allows a wide range of readers to engage enthusiastically with the poem. An unquestioning patriot would boast about the many deeds of American war, and a conscientious objector would rue the blood shed by American hands. Frost allows both readers to find meaning in his poem. Blanco's poem admits a much narrower range of readers. If you don't believe that America is a unified land full of crescendoing faces and doors that speak Hebrew, you'd better look elsewhere for edification.

    Frost, unlike Blanco, also uses linguistic ambiguity to great effect. In his parenthetical line, the connection of deeds of war to property deeds sparks insights that Frost may not have intended. As a lawyer, I read that metaphor and reflect on the ways in which the legal system often devastates its participants. Ultimately, ambiguity helps Frost fulfill his inaugural purpose. (I know he didn't actually write "The Gift" for the inauguration.) It provides a source from which everyone can draw meaning. It celebrates democracy by being democratic.

    The inauguration also reminds me that you could review Barack Obama's literary criticism (see his assessment of T.S. Eliot in the article below) if you ever need something fun to write about on your blog.


    1. I agree, Neal. It's not very democratic (or very American) to speak to only a portion of the nation. When he tries to list different types of people, it seems like he's being inclusive, but I think it has the opposite effect. Not very appropriate for an inaugural poem.

  4. Great comment! In fact, if you're not careful, I'll coerce you to guest blog for me. I especially appreciate your reading of Frost's line, "(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)." Also a good point about the narrower range of readers; listing many professions does not equate to an expansive understanding of the nation. Thanks for the link, too--fascinating!