I imagine I'll be one of many posting this poem today for Poetry Friday. I love it that President Obama chose, for the second time, to include a poem in his inaugural ceremonies. I posted four years ago about Elizabeth Alexander's poem, and in the intervening years I have read and enjoyed more of her work. And this time, I enjoyed Richard Blanco's poem.
It's a challenge to write a poem to read on television, before millions of people, most of whom never read poetry and have little desire to. The piece has to be clear, concrete, accessible, but also "poetic," however people see that. I thought Blanco handled it well. I played the video for my middle schoolers, and both seventh and eighth graders picked up on the reference to Newtown, the fact that Blanco saluted both his parents, and his tribute to the variety of lives Americans live. The only complaints I heard were that the poem was too long, and one of the kids objected to the use of the word "crescendoing," because he didn't know what it meant.
Here is the full text of the poem:
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 cafe 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
Here are some more interesting tidbits I found: an interview Blanco gave to the Academy of American Poets and a history of the previous inaugural poems. I also read this article, in which Alexandra Petri used Blanco's poem to ask whether poetry is dead.
If poetry is dead, you couldn't tell it on Fridays. Today's Poetry Friday roundup is hosted by Tabatha Yeatts at The Opposite of Indifference.
Poetry looks alive and well to me. What do you think?
3 hours ago
The visual images in this poem are beautiful. "Pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise."
Thanks for giving us a chance to revisit this great poem, Ruth! I was proud of him.
It has become a moment in the inauguration, our history, that I look forward to, Ruth. This thrilled me, that it was a story of us, of the US. I liked it very much, that he kept it broad, but also referenced the Sandy Hook tragedy, the time we are in now. Thanks for your intro & about your students, too.
I loved the poem and have been thinking about it all week. The focus on diversity and unity, the one family of humanity, the general and the specific. I love the way he uses detail to paint such specific pictures in our minds. And I also appreciate that he was selected, a Cuban gay man, himself the voice of so many who have been marginalized for too long. His delivery was also brilliant, as you say -- it's difficult to read a poem on TV, and I think his words were accessible to those who consider themselves non-poetry lovers.
Thank you for sharing this poem, Ruth. To be able to really see the words and think about their meaning after they were originally spoken is wonderful. Your student's insights were spot on - good listeners. =)
One of my favotire moments from Monday! I have become quite a fan of his poetry!
I love the poem' focus on unity. Thank you for sharing the full text so we can savor it.
When I heard this poem while watching the live event I immediately liked it. Having read it many times since, I like it even more.
Thanks for highlighting this key poem written into American history. Also, I appreciate you sharing the additional links and information at the end of your post. Very interesting reading!
I missed the inauguration -- we were out of town and hiking in newly fallen snow -- so I thank you for this. I've heard about the poem and the poet, but hadn't read/heard it yet!
And no, poetry is most definitely NOT dead!
I enjoyed listening to this poem a great deal. I must have played this video three times. It's also interesting to hear the perspectives of your students about this poem - good point about crescendoing. Haha. You're right, though, I am glad that poetry found its rightful place in such an important ceremony. :)
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