By Max Radwin, Daily Fine Arts Editor
Published January 23, 2013
It may be that I just voted for the first time this year and I’m still too young to really understand, but I never realized that politics was such a party: inaugural balls, galas, parades, mixers and performances by hip-hop stars? It sounds amazing. And somewhere in all of that, Richard Blanco read a poem.
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I can’t think of another event in which poetry has a bigger audience and could have a potentially greater impact. On the other hand, there’s something to be said about the fact that, even when this was the case, the poetry was still overshadowed by the many aspects of the celebration: Beyoncé, Kelly Clarkson, James Taylor — and I even heard the president was there. Of course, who’s going to argue that these things, which are so much more outwardly pertinent to everyday life, should ever be overshadowed by something so seemingly small as a poem? Perhaps Blanco’s “One Today” fit in right where it should have. And for that matter, I’m grateful that poetry still has any sort of place in the inauguration, because it easily could not have.
After all, there is no established tradition for having a poet read at presidential inauguration ceremonies; there were only four (Robert Frost, Elizabeth Alexander, Maya Angelou and Miller Williams) invited to do so before Blanco. Very few would have been asking, “Hey, where’s our poem?” had he or she been left out. But Obama is a smart enough guy to understand how beneficial asking a poet to read can be to enriching such a ceremony and, in turn, the literary community. He actually seemed to be one of the few people enjoying Blanco’s reading, too.
My fear that Blanco’s homosexuality and ethnicity would become more important than the poem itself was only partly realized. There’s no denying that inviting Blanco to read comes off as a political move. While he is certainly worthy of the honor (he won a PEN Open Book Award in 2006 for “Directions to the Beach of the Dead,” among other accolades), why not have Natasha Trethewey (named the Poet Laureate this past June — the United States’s official poet by occupation) read at the ceremony? The simple answer is that it wouldn’t have caused quite as much of a stir in the media. It’s irrelevant whether you love Obama’s politics or you don’t; the main concern comes closer to asking, was Blanco there as a political tool or a poet? Or, maybe, was he there as both?
Blanco and “One Today” stood out for themselves during the ceremony, with all of that background information seemingly falling away as he read. The only one who continued to put the person before the poem was ABC, whose “Inaugural Notes” about Blanco’s history and background were more than distracting. ABC also had a stream of tweets about the poem running onscreen while Blanco read — which really just meant that those people weren’t listening at all.
My evaluation of the poem is that it was enjoyable and it did its job. I was put off by the way he said, “breathe” (come on Rich, you’re not at a poetry slam), but I didn’t hate it like a lot of people seemed to. Though I didn’t love it, either. In art, especially when contextualized by the divisiveness of politics, it’s easy to want to pick a definitive stance on whether something is good or bad, and I’ve seen a lot of people taking this approach with Blanco. To make such a declaration is to feel that you have a strong understanding of the work, which is often not the case.
To be honest, I don’t understand the whole poem, and how could I? I’d have to read it 20 more times and play with the words and how they sound, think about it, come back to it, etc. I know that its expansiveness, its image of the hardworking American in its many forms (“Hear: the doors we open / for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom, / buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días”) reminds me of Whitman. But that’s really all I’ve got.
The bottom line is that it got me thinking, it had me reflecting and it stood for the day.