Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Richard Blanco's Inaugural Poem "One Today": Voices Previously Unheard on the Inaugural Stage

Yesterday's inaugural poem "One Today" by openly gay Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco is receiving well-merited attention. To single out one among many merits: the poem deserves attention for its masterful symphonic progression moving in time through a single day from sunrise to moonrise, a symphonic progression both undergirded by and conjuring the notion of the deeply etched solidarity of all human beings under the one sun, under the one sky, beneath the single moon--of the deeply etched solidarity of all human beings sharing one planet, breathing one air, linked together by shared work (tilling the fields, delivering milk, cutting sugarcane, ringing cash registers) and shared creativity (spinning bridges out of steel, painting, stitching).

In both the cadences and the free style of the verse, a number of commentators hear echoes of Walt Whitman, who was also gay. I suppose I can see the Whitman comparison, though I wonder if it's not simply a conventional expectation: I wonder if we're conditioned to expect to hear in inaugural rhetoric allusions to a classic poet who envisaged American democracy as a never-finished project involving people from all walks of American society and from working people in particular, from all corners of the land.

In listening to Blanco proclaim his powerful poem, I was struck, instead, by touches that evoked for me  the voices of people like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Violeta Parra. I found the personal references to what Blanco owes his mother and father, who sacrificed and worked hard to make it possible for him to stand today on a world stage and intone his poetry, moving in the extreme. His mother, who rang up groceries for twenty years so that Blanco could write poetry; his father, who cut sugarcane to provide shoes and books for Blanco and his brother . . . .

These lines made me think quite specifically of Langston Hughes's classic poem "Mother to Son," with its stirring metaphor of the staircase that a mother climbs step by arduous step, so that her son can climb after her. With its stirring metaphor of the difficult and determined climb of an African-American mother so that her African-American son can find courage to climb as she has climbed to make a way for him . . . .

And that, in turn, makes me remember Zora Neale Hurston's painful (and accurate) observation later taken up by Alice Walker that women of color are the mules of the world, relegated historically to work of the lowest and most demeaning status, historically deprived of power to do anything other than bear the burdens of others with no reward for their hard labor as that same thankless labor enriches everyone other than themselves. 

Above all, though, in the way in which "One Today" engages all our senses, through its appeal to sight (the light with which the poem begins, the colors to which it moves on), to smell (the array of fruit on stands, the command to draw air into our lungs and breathe), and taste and touch (the corn and wheat that hands grow for our tables, the language that pours from our mouths), I hear strong echoes of Violeta Parra's masterful hymn-poem "Gracias a la Vida," which makes the same progression from sight to sound to touch as it celebrates the gift of life.

I suppose what one hears in these powerfully evocative public addresses is very much what one wants to hear. To me, it seems important to hear echoes of the voices of people who have seldom previously stood in important public places like the stage of an inaugural event in Washington, D.C. To hear at this second inauguration of our nation's first black president the voices of African Americans, of African-American women, in particular, of Latinos and Latinas, and yes, of gay folks like Whitman. And Richard Blanco himself. Through whose talent as a poet, and through whose history and culture--that of a gay Latino--such voices reach our ears . . . . 

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