On Monday, the millions who tuned into watch the second inauguration of President Barack Obama heard Richard Blanco recite his poem, “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.
Four years ago the poem was “Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander, which stands up well upon rereading:
Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.
It might seem that poems are as much of a tradition in presidential inaugurations as bunting and the Marine Band. In fact, there have only been five; the first in 1961 when Robert Frost read “The Gift Outright,” at John F. Kennedy’s swearing-in. After that, it was 36 years before Maya Angelou recited at President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration, followed by Miller Williams at Clinton’s second.
Commissioned to mark important events, “occasional” poems don’t have a great reputation and many are as wooden as those temporary reviewing stands. The idea that the muse can be ordered up, like a martini, is a bit unseemly. But Blanco’s poem was heart-felt and sturdy enough to stand up to those Marine Band trumpets. I was glad it was there to be heard.
Most of the time, poetry enjoys the visibility of other minor cultural subcultures like chess or quilting. Poems pop into the public consciousness once in a while, usually alongside a feature story or in the credits of a documentary film.
But like our nation’s demographics, the poetry world isn’t what it used to be; it’s infinitely richer. Richard Blanco — who also happens to be openly gay and a first generation Cuban-American — makes reference to “many prayers, but one light” in his poem.
Poetry has escaped from academia and taken refuge in bars and high school auditoriums, performed and preached in an ongoing explosion called “slam.” The poetry slam is a no-holds barred contest of tropes and talent. Its practitioners are young and diverse, with spoken words inspired by hip-hop, the Bible, Shakespeare, advertising slogans, you name it.
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) wrote, “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Slam poetry — political, sexual, raw, tender and funny — reports news honestly and often brilliantly; National Poetry Slam participants have won literature fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Full disclosure: I used to write poetry. In fact, I moved to Boston in hopes of becoming a published poet. I found a different voice but will always turn to poetry in order to slow down, drink deep and word up.
I recently subscribed to the daily dispatch from the Academy of American Poets, which means my morning email always contains a poem. Some days, the offering leaves me cold and I hit the delete key. On other days, I’m bowled over by beauty and insight, and I save the email or forward it to friends. I’ve discovered fine writers I would not have encountered otherwise: Chard deNiord, Marilyn Nelson and Jim Moore, to name a handful. And I’ve renewed fond acquaintances with old friends: Carl Sandburg, Amy Lowell, Wallace Stevens.
On Monday, the poem in my inbox was, fittingly, “Specimen Days,” Walt Whitman’s reflection on inauguration day March 4, 1865. He describes President Abraham Lincoln on his way to his second swearing in, riding “down to the Capitol in his own carriage, by himself, on a sharp trot, about noon, either because he wish’d to be on hand to sign bills, or to get rid of marching in line with the absurd procession, the muslin temple of liberty and pasteboard monitor.”
Those were very different times; less pomp, less pomposity, too, perhaps. But not everything has changed.
Whitman described the president after four years in office as looking, “very much worn and tired; the lines, indeed, of vast responsibilities, intricate questions, and demands of life and death, cut deeper than ever upon his dark brown face; yet all the old goodness, tenderness, sadness, and canny shrewdness, underneath the furrows.”