If Monday’s inauguration revolved around a central motif, it was inclusion. That has indeed been an increasingly central theme in Obama’s presidency, pitched against the suffocatingly partisan tenor of political discourse in the U.S. Little surprise, then, that they would arrange the inauguration, with its attendant ritual displays, as an opportunity to reinforce the theme of inclusion as a prelude to the political battles to come.
Watching Monday’s festivities, some were encouraged by the inclusion of poet Richard Blanco, which allowed for the recitation of a number of historic firsts. Among inaugural poets, he is the first Latino, the first openly gay man, the first immigrant.
Those privileges briefly cast him in the same spotlight as Beyoncé and Kelly Clarkson. Though less decorous, that may be as much an achievement as having been singled out by the president. A year from now, when someone is grasping for an example of ways we’ve breached the norms that tend to divide Americans, inaugural poets likely will not be the first to spring to mind. The appearance has raised Blanco’s profile about as high as any living poet in the nation, but he is still a poet writing among a people who generally consider poetry the sort of topic from which you graduate when you receive your diploma. Millions of adults listen to pop music, but most poetry readers are schoolchildren drafted unwillingly to the task.
It was not always thus. Poetry once ranked among the vital popular arts in America. Poets like Emerson, Longfellow and Whitman gave enduring form to the thought and attitudes that shaped the nation. American poetry may still be animated by a vital spark, but that vitality is largely hidden from a public that has almost unanimously moved on to other art forms for its cultural development.
Among the remaining partisans, that’s led to a self-decrecating sense of humor—more sardonic than funny, really—about the public’s awareness of poetry. “Every four years,” The New Republic editor Ryan Kearney wrote in a tweet that circulated widely on Monday, “Americans are reminded that poetry exists.” Even that timetable is by no means guaranteed: Blanco is only the fifth poet since 1961 to recite at a presidential inauguration.
It is a tenuous tradition at best. It was begun by Kennedy’s ’61 invitation to Robert Frost, given a one-off revival when James Dickey read at the post-inaugural gala for Carter, then all but abandoned until Maya Angelou’s appearance at the Clinton inauguration. That was followed by another Republican lapse under George W. Bush, so “every four years” ends up being more like, “occasionally, when we’ve elected a Democrat.” There’s no telling when the next reminder will come along.
From the partisan point-of-view, then, each inaugural poem is a rare opportunity to move beyond simply registering the existence of poetry. They are also opportunities to argue for the significance of an art form that has lost its hold on the public.
Nature logged its vote at the first inaugural reading when a high wind flummoxed Frost’s plan to read a rather slight prelude composed specifically for the occasion. He was forced back on his own memory, and recited the far stronger piece, “The Gift Outright,” which had been what Kennedy had requested in the first place. It is a tough little poem, with its concentration on “possession” and “salvation,” but its 16 lines, wavering between pentameter and tetrameter, make a succinct argument in favor of poetic technique as a tool for elevating an event, particularly a ceremony, into the heightened realm of the symbolic. In both language and rhythm it suggested that Kennedy’s inauguration was not just the succession of one man to the highest office of the land, but also the enactment of a ritual by which we recapitulate our national identity.
Blanco’s poem, “One Today,” is long by comparison, more than five times longer than “The Gift Outright.” Because it ultimately says less, that length gives it an airiness that, on Monday, threatened to untether it altogether from its surroundings. The intent may have been to weave a tapestry of scenes from American life, but the effect is more akin to a slideshow. It ends up being a nice poem, in a platitudinous way, and as such, does far less than even Blanco’s less visible work to argue for the virtues of poetry.
Much of that was due to its litany images and references evoking the plurality of American identity. It echoed that characteristically Obaman motif—echoed it so faithfully, in fact, that it was tempting to ask what, if anything, the poem added. After all, Obama has proven himself effective at the rhetorical use of that sort of picaresque detail. Rather than lending its own gravity to the proceedings, then, “One Today” felt like a intermission or a reprise.
This is not entirely Blanco’s fault. High ceremony is a bit outside his natural idiom, as he more or less admitted on NPR. “It’s a very difficult assignment because it is an occasional poem,” he said, and Blanco is not an occasional writer. He is more accomplished at teasing meaning from the minutely observed details of the particular. That skill can be seen in “América,” where he wrote of Cuban emigres standing outside an Eighth Street grocer’s,
clinging to one another’s lies of lost wealth,ashamed and empty as hollow trees.
The technique here is much the same as in “One Today,” but the scope is different. The diacritic above the e in ”América” is your clue that the author is writing not about America pars pro toto, but rather about the conception of America shared by a particular community of Spanish-speaking immigrants. While the two poems are roughly the same length and rely in the same degree on image and allusion, “América” is weightier because it sees the American tableau from a fixed position and not, as in “One Today,” with the disembodied remoteness of a movie helicopter shot. Unable to call upon the unifying experiences of the close-knit community, Blanco is left with unconvincing generalities and broad symbols of unity: one sun, one ground, one sky.
The pity of it is that Blanco is a fine poet when unearthing the personal from the narrow bounds of the specific. Writing “One Today” has forced him to turn that sensibility inside out in pursuit of a shady inclusiveness. ”The challenge of it,” he told NPR, “was how to maintain sort of that sense of intimacy and that conversational tone in a poem that obviously has to sort of encompass a whole lot more than just my family and my experience.” What the occasion really called for, though, was a hard-nosed choice between one or the other: intimacy and a conversational tone, or the broad view of American identity. Having chosen neither, Blanco ends up with a lot of pretty sentiment and a few apt phrases, strung upon a structure that argues little for the merit of the form.
In the end, Blanco’s mere presence at the podium spoke the message more eloquently. Precisely because the inaugural poet is an optional part of tradition, inviting an openly gay, Latino man to compose a poem for the occasion reinforces the theme of inclusivity. It is the sort of symbolic gesture the Obama administration has long favored. It’s also why you’ve likely heard a great deal more about Blanco’s ancestry and sexuality than you’re likely to hear about “One Today.”