January 22, 2013

In a poem personal yet universal, Maine poet unites

At the second inauguration of President Barack Obama, Richard Blanco of Bethel follows in the footsteps of Robert Frost and Maya Angelou, championing the American experience

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The poem that was read aloud Monday at President Obama's second inauguration was deeply personal to the Maine poet who wrote it, scholars said, but its theme was universal: This country offers tremendous possibility, yet its real greatness stems from the unity of its citizenry.

Barack Obama, Robert Blanco
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Win McNamee

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Richard Blanco

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Below is the text of Richard Blanco's "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.

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

Richard Blanco, a little-known poet from Bethel in western Maine, was elevated to the national stage when he was selected to be Obama's inaugural poet. He is only the fifth poet to compose an original piece for an inauguration.

The first was Robert Frost, who read at President John F. Kennedy's inaugural in 1961. President Bill Clinton chose Maya Angelou for his first inauguration, in 1993.

Blanco's nine-stanza poem, "One Today," referred to the country's agricultural and industrial history and its majestic mountains and rivers. Fittingly, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it evoked King's most famous speech. And it spoke of "the empty desks of twenty children marked absent today, and forever," because of last month's shootings in Newtown, Conn.

The poem included references to Blanco's immigration to this country from Spain, and to his parents -- his mother, who rang up groceries for 20 years "so I could write this poem," and his father, who cut sugar cane "so my brother and I could have books and shoes."

He talked of unity: "my face, your face, millions of faces in morning's mirrors." He talked of the United States' changing demographics: "Hear: the doors we open for each other all day, saying: hello ... in every language spoken into one wind carrying our lives without prejudice, as these words break from my lips."

He talked of hope: "a new constellation, waiting for us to map it, waiting for us to name it -- together."

In many ways, Blanco, who is 44, Hispanic and openly gay, represents the changing face of America. Addie Whisenant, spokeswoman for the inaugural committee, said last week that the president chose Blanco because his "deeply personal poems are rooted in the idea of what it means to be an American."

George Kinghorn, executive director of the University of Maine Museum of Art, is a friend of Blanco and watched the inauguration with pride Monday.

"If you know his poetry, he's able to conjure up a lot of imagery and engage all of the senses," Kinghorn said. "But he stayed true to his own voice. He spoke to the country, but he brought it back to his life and his family."

The response to Blanco's poem was positive, with many scholars comparing Blanco's work to that of Walt Whitman, who raised the profile of free verse poetry in the mid- to late 1800s.

"The beauty of the Richard Blanco poem is that it doesn't really need to be broken down or explained," said Joseph Heithaus, a poet and professor at DePauw University in Indiana. "The poem, through its rhythm, its long catalog of images, its invitation to the listener to hear the simple music of a day, and finally to collectively, as citizens, name our own constellation was clear and poignant."

Heithaus said Blanco's task was huge -- to speak to and for a nation without giving in to generalities.

"I often say to my creative-writing students that the singular almost always beats the plural, that the single object, the particular experience, usually wins out over some plural cover-all," he said. "Blanco used the singular experiences of many across the nation to represent the collective."

Steven Evans, an English professor at the University of Maine and coordinator of the New Writing Series, agreed that Blanco's task was difficult, and said the poet responded.

"He was able to sound some universal notes with some unifying metaphors, but also spoke specifically to the American experience," Evans said. "He was personal and universal. That's extremely difficult to do."

Anthony Walton, an English professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, said the poem was brilliant in its ability to connect with so many people simultaneously.

"I was moved by how, in the spirit of such American public poets as Whitman and (Carl) Sandburg, his vision was both large-hearted and specific, both celebratory and truth-telling. Writing a poem that important on 'deadline' is not an enviable task, and he rose to the occasion."

Blanco has published three books of poetry and is an engineer by trade. He also serves on Bethel's planning board. He could not be reached for comment Monday.

Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter; @PPHEricRussell

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Additional Photos

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President Barack Obama, left, shakes hands with poet Richard Blanco during the ceremonial swearing-in West Front of the U.S. Capitol during the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, Monday, Jan. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

  


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