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Inauguration 2013: Poet is a worthy successor to Walt Whitman [Updated]

January 21, 2013|By Dan Turner

[This post has been updated from its original version. It originally spelled the poet's name "Bianco," not "Blanco."]

If President Obama had been casting about through American history for the ideal poet to deliver his inaugural "Song of Ourselves," he could do no worse at this juncture than Walt Whitman. The booming American icon didn't just have a gift for ferreting out the things that make all Americans, indeed all humans, the same regardless of accidents of birth or upbringing -- he had a way of inspiring people to be better than they think they are, to see the puny nature of our differences and work together to appreciate the wonders of democracy. Anybody who's been paying attention to Congress knows we could use a little of that right now. Plus -- and this is icing on the cake from a political standpoint -- he was probably gay.

There's just one problem for Obama: Whitman is dead. But the president seems to have found the next best thing -- in fact, with a bonus.

Richard Blanco, a 44-year-old Cuban American, is not only openly gay but Latino, two groups Obama's Democrats aim to court as their numbers swell and American tolerance for differences grows. And his poem, delivered at Obama's inauguration Monday, was breathtakingly Whitmanesque. i speak, in particular, of "Song of Myself," which like Blanco's poem is an attempt to grasp the epic sweep of America. These two stanzas, in particular, are striking:

"I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul

I lean as loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil, this air,

Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,

I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,

Hoping to cease not till death."

--Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself"

Contrast that with Bianco:

"One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk

of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat

and hands, 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."

--"One Today," Richard Blanco 

Different, yes: Whitman is the child of Americans singing of his wonder at the nature of creation seemingly from elements as simple as blades of grass and motes of soil, Blanco wondering at his connection to the land and the life it brings his family. But in both poems it is our ground, our American ground without which life would be impossible.They are poems about how nature, America, and our identity touch us all, and the differences between us might not be as great as they're made out to be by our political system.

That's a message all Americans could use right about now.

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