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Video conversation

Hector Tobar and David L. Ulin on the inauguration as literature

January 22, 2013|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • David Ulin, left, and Hector Tobar
David Ulin, left, and Hector Tobar (Spreecast )

This morning, staff writer Hector Tobar and I talked about Monday's presidential inauguration through the filter of its writing, paying particular attention to President Obama's inaugural address, and the commemorative poem, "One Today," by Richard Blanco. See the video below.

We started by discussing expectations, and the sense that an inaugural speech ought to rise above the concerns of daily politics to address instead the soul of the country, to instill a touch of poetry, if you will. The Obama speech did not exactly do this, focusing more on an agenda for the president's second term.

And yet, Tobar noted, this made it vivid in its own right, although it is hard to make policy sing. At the same time, he suggested, the president had missed an opportunity to connect the inaugural to a very different kind of antecedent: Rev. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered nearly half a century ago from the Lincoln Memorial, at the other end of the Capitol Mall.

For me, the speech found poetry in two places: first, its long overdue embrace of gay equality (which, with his elegant reference to "Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall," Obama acknowledged as a fundamental civil right), and second, in its reference to Thomas Jefferson's assertion, in the Declaration of Independence, "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Such a line, David Malouf argues in his recent book "The Happy Life," was "on Jefferson’s part a language act rather than a considered political one"; in other words, "[h]e was led, in the act of writing itself, to speak more radically than he knew and with another meaning than he consciously intended."

It's a fascinating point, suggesting as it does that America as a nation was in some sense, authored, created out of the imaginations of thinkers such as Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, who were writers as well as political theorists.

And yet, it's hard to merge poetry and politics, which we discussed in regard to the Blanco poem. Tobar saw the touch of Whitman in its sweeping rhythms, which use the imagery of a day in America to get at what unifies us all. I found the poem more uneven, at its best when Blanco wrote of his experience, especially in the image of someone on the way to "ring up groceries as my mother did / for twenty years, so I could write this poem."

Indeed, this was the most moving aspect of the inauguration, the way it seemed to reflect America through the filter of its people, from Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain civil rights hero Medgar Evans, who gave the invocation, to Blanco and on to Obama himself. In that sense, perhaps, it did what literature, what poetry, is supposed to do after all: to give us a lens through which to look at, and to understand, ourselves.


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