A List of Things People Do
Richard Blanco and the Recycled Inaugural Poem
Richard Blanco once told the Poetry Foundation, "Poetry is the only job in the world that when someone says, 'You made me cry,' you say, 'Thank you.'" When the camera panned to the crowd during his recitation of the inaugural poem "One Today" last week, there wasn't a damp eye in the house.
Blanco aimed high and missed, and the national audience has been a little embarrassed for him ever since. It's always awkward when something you wanted very badly to be good just isn't, and even though there were many excited expectations pinned on Blanco—a gay Latino poet lifted from obscurity, hopefully to read the Poem of Our Time before an audience of reverent millions—he just didn't deliver the goods. Maybe Blanco was too new, nervous, and unknown to rise to the occasion, but not only was his poem a flop, it was almost exactly like Elizabeth Alexander's poem from Obama's first inauguration, which no one really liked, either.
Both poems start in the morning and then attempt to provide glimpses into an imagined American quotidian. In Alexander's poem, we "go about our business, walking past each other, catching each other's/eyes or not... each/one of our ancestors on our tongues." Blanco imagines the American day starting in almost exactly the same multilingual, interactive way, with "the doors we open for each other all day, saying hello, shalom, buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días."
Their bustling American a.m.s also seem to sound a lot alike. Alexander observed, "All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din," while Blanco noted, "The day's gorgeous din of honking cabs,/buses launching down avenues, the symphony/of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways." (Although Alexander might not have mentioned a guitar, exactly, she did include a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum, a cello, a boom box, and a harmonica.)
Blanco's American morning has "pencil-yellow school buses," and in Alexander's "a woman and her son wait for the bus." Their American afternoons both have some everyman farmer turning his eyes to the sky. In both, there is the explicit inclusion of an abstruse, metaphorical "light" that somehow bodes well for America.
But the worst similarity is the way both poems try to give props to the working class by simply enumerating blue-collar occupations. Alexander has people patching tires, laying railroad track, and building "brick by brick the glittering edifices/they would then keep clean and work inside of." Blanco's Americans "clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives" and "teach geometry or ring up groceries." In a synecdoche that is more dehumanizing than sincere, Blanco talks about the pairs of hands that sow wheat, glean coal, plant windmills, dig trenches, and route pipes and cables. Unbelievably, Blanco also included someone "stitching another wound/or uniform" after Alexander already wrote, "Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform." I'll give Blanco the benefit of the doubt here and say it was homage, not blatant plagiarism, but how boring is that?
The hopes and anxieties of the people are so much bigger than the jobs they do. What hardworking Americans really needed from Blanco was a poem that inflamed and inspired them—not just acknowledged and observed them. Blanco's mother rang up groceries for 20 years, and his father cut sugar cane to put him through school—both facts he makes note of in his poem. His is a family of immigrants and exiles. He was first generation. English wasn't spoken in his home. What's more, he's gay, and he struggled with not only the cultural discrimination inherent in America but the vehement homophobia of his own Cuban family. Blanco earned success in numerous arenas and did it because he worked like a dog all his life, even when the battle was uphill and against the wind. He had the blue-collar chops to write a poem that does more than list things some people do in the morning, and he didn't do it. All told, "One Today" was another painful exercise in the discrepancy between, like so many things in politics, what could have been and what was.