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Inauguration 2013: Richard Blanco's poem captures nation's hope, unease

January 21, 2013|By Hector Tobar
  • Richard Blanco is greeted by President Obama during the 57th presidential inauguration.
Richard Blanco is greeted by President Obama during the 57th presidential… (Win McNamee / Associated…)

In about 550 words, Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem created a metaphorical country and took it through the journey of a metaphorical day.

“One Today” was an intimate and sweeping celebration of our shared, single identity as a people, and Blanco recited it in a voice that was both confident and tenderly soft-spoken.

Blanco built his poem on a foundation of the concrete and the everyday. He began with people going to work and school in “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…” And then he placed these ordinary people in a recognizably American landscape of “one ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat and hands. …”

FULL COVERAGE: 57th presidential inauguration

It was a masterfully polished, disciplined and heartfelt response to the task Blanco faced: crafting a poem that not only commemorated the civic ritual for which it was commissioned, but that also captured the collective hope and unease of our shared national experience. Blanco invoked the tragedy in Newtown (“the empty desks of 20 children marked absent today, and forever”) and also his own Cuban-immigrant family, describing those who go to work “… to teach geometry, or ring up groceries, as my mother did for 20 years, so I could write this poem.”

And finally, Blanco closed the circle of the poem’s central metaphor wonderfully and simply. His poem began with a sunrise, and it ended with the moon and the stars filling “one sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes. …”

One expects the reviews of Obama’s speech will be as varied as the political opinions of those who heard it. To this ear, it often drifted into territory that might have been more appropriate to the State of a Union address he has to deliver next month. But Blanco’s poem was a reminder of why so many presidents have resisted the idea of having an inaugural poem — the fear that the professional wordsmith’s lines will somehow outshine the politician’s.

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