Richard Blanco's "One Today": Deconstructing Inaugural Doggerel

Updated on May 24, 2019
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Richard Blanco

Source

Introduction and Text of "One Today"

Richard Blanco read his piece, "One Today," at the second inauguration of Barack Obama, January 21, 2013. Blanco is the first Latino, first openly gay, and youngest poet to read his composition at an inauguration, which is either an eerie coincidence or a political expediency as the Obama administration and the Democratic Party continue to pander to those three demographics.

The piece serves as a proper vehicle for celebrating this regime; it is technically flawed with poor word choices and tired talking points, while its theme of unity is as facile as well as disingenuous as the Obama administration itself. The Guardian's Carol Rumens has identified the doggerel infested piece as a "valiant flop." One might quibble only with the term "valiant."

One Today

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving across windows.

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning's mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. 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 -
to teach geometry, or ring up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem for all of us today.

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the 'I have a dream' we all keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won't explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.

One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, 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.

The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind - our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day's gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.

Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across cafe tables, Hear: the doors we open
each day for each other, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me - in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.

One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into the sky that yields to our resilience.

One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn't give what you wanted.

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always, always - home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country - all of us -
facing the stars
hope - a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it - together.waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.

Blanco Reading "One Today"

Commentary

Carol Rumens got it half right when she described this piece of doggerel as a "valiant flop"; it is certainly a "flop," but there is nothing "valiant" about it.

First Versagraph: Tracking the Sun

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving across windows.

The opening versagraph tracks the sun on its journey from east to west across the USA: "One sun rose on us today." The speaker finds it necessary to remind his listeners/readers that there is only one sun, not two, just one, and it rose today. But after rising on us, it "kindled over our shores." The word "kindled" is unfortunate because its literal meaning is to ignite or start a fire, but it is supposedly a poem so we are expected to accept the meaning as illuminate.

The sun moves on, "peeking over the Smokies" and then "greeting the faces / of the Great Lakes." The faces of the lakes must have opened their eyes and shouted, Hey, it time to wake up. The sun continues, "spreading a simple truth / across the Great Plains, before "charging across the Rockies." The reader is left wondering what that simple truth is and then gets jarred by the sun which had merely peeked over the Smokies but is now in attack mode as it charges across the Rockies.

The next absurdity occurs when the speaker claims that the sun, this "one light wak[es] ups rooftops." Again, one can image the rooftops opening their eyes and proclaiming, I have to get up, it's morning. And then the speaker makes voyeurs out of us by allowing us peer through windows behind which is moving, "a story / told by our silent gestures."

Second Versagraph: A Whitmanesque Catalogue

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning's mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. 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 -
to teach geometry, or ring up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem for all of us today.

While the sun is going about its business of kindling, peeking, greeting, charging, and waking up rooftops, we the people are looking at our mugs in mirrors and yawning. Now, the Whitmanesque catalogue begins with "pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights," and fruit stands: "apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows / begging our praise"—hear the dog whistle in that rainbow imagery?

Like the historically and rhetorically challenged but ever ready to pepper his discourse with I-this and I-that president, Blanco inserts himself into the ceremonial piece through a cataloguing of workers from truckers, to restaurant works, to accountants, to doctors, to teachers, and to grocery clerks like his mother who "r[a]ng-up groceries . . . / for twenty years, so I could write this poem." Richard's mother worked so Richard could write this piece of inaugural doggerel. The sentimentality of such a solipsistic line is breathtakingly insincere.

Third Versagraph: Howard Zinn-ing History

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the 'I have a dream' we all keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won't explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.

As soon as the third versagraph begins, "All of us as vital as the one light we move through, / the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day," the reader can predict what is coming. The only question is how exploitative it will be. We have a hint when he says, regarding the study of history, "we question history." Unfortunately, the Howard Zinn-ization of history doesn't allow students to even know history, much less question history.

Alluding to the Newtown school shooting, the speaker refers to those dead children as being "marked absent / today and forever." Being marked absent can hardly begin to describe those children's absence.

Poetically, as well as politically, because this is political verse, referring to them this way jolts the mind and startles the heart with the absurdity that henceforth the teacher will be marking these students absent "forever." The rest of this versagraph limps into stained glass windows and faces of bronze statues without purpose, without meaning. The image of mothers watching their children on playgrounds "slide into their day" is contrived, thus silly.

Fourth Versagraph: Obamaesque Self-Assertion

One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, 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.

Again, a Whitmanesque cataloguing of American workers serves as just another place to insert himself Obamaesque into his narrative: a nod to farmers, coal miners which gets politically corrected by planters of windmills, ditch diggers, construction workers, whose hands are "as worn as my father's cutting sugarcane / so my brother and I could have books and shoes." At least, Richard's father's work seems goal oriented, fastened to the harsh reality of material existence.

Fifth Versagraph: Postmodern Meaninglessness

The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind - our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day's gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.

The odd image of farm, desert, city, and plains "dust being mingled by one wind—our breath" heralds the postmodern meme that meaning does not exist; therefore, meaning can be anything the scribbler says it is, and here the speaker deigns to indulge meaninglessness by juxtaposing breath and dust.

Pushing the absurdity even further, the rest of the versagraph commands the reader to breathe, and "hear it / through the days gorgeous din of honking cabs," etc. It's as if the scribbler has run out of things to say but needed to continue because the piece had to meet certain length requirements.

Sixth Versagraph: Continued Meaninglessness

Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across cafe tables, Hear: the doors we open
each day for each other, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me - in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.

The meaninglessness continues as the speaker continues to command his readers to continue to hear stuff such as playground swings, train whistles, people saying hello in different languages, which again serves as a prompt to insert himself into the piece: or "buenos dias / in the language my mother taught me." And the speaker lets his readers know that his words break from his lips without prejudice. We have to take his word for it.

Seventh Versagraph: Absurd Sky Claims

One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into the sky that yields to our resilience.

There is one sky and has been "since Appalachians and Sierras claimed / their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked / their way to the sea." This empty line must hope the reader fixates on the proper nouns and does not try to make a connection between their putative relationships with the sky as proclaimed here.

Then after another catalogue from steel workers to business report writers, to doctors/nurses/seamstresses, to artists, and back to construction workers who set "the last floor on the Freedom Tower / jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience." Again, an absurd claim that the sky yields to our resilience offers itself as the posturing of postmodernist drivel that passes for poetry.

Eighth Versagraph: The Sky and Disconnect

One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn't give what you wanted.

Again, the speaker emphasizes one sky; again, unfortunately, to insert himself, this time however obliquely, into the poem. There is, however, a disconnect between the opening lines in which we all look at the sky tired from work or to try to guess the weather. We are not necessarily looking at the sky when we give thanks for love or as the speaker is leading up to, "sometimes praising a mother / who knew how to give, or forgiving a father / who couldn't give what you wanted."

Ninth Versagraph: Best Image in Emptiest Vessel

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always, always - home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country - all of us -
facing the stars
hope - a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it - together.waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.

The best image in this piece is the "plum blush of dusk." Unfortunately, it is set in the emptiest vessel on the page, the last versagraph. The speaker says, "We head home." Nothing had actually taken us away from home. We did, however, crescendo into our day, and the speaker has certainly alluded to a wide variety of workers who would have left home to work, but the very specific, "we head home," seems to come out of nowhere and fastens readers to a journey on which they had not necessarily been traveling. But the real deficit of this final versagraph is the gratuitous aping of the Obamic notion of the collective.

At this point, readers realize that they have been manipulated with all the "ones," beginning with the awkward title, "One Today." Now the speaker continues to hammer away with one sky, one moon, one country. The moon becomes a drummer, "silently tapping on every rooftop / and every window." We "all of us" are "facing the stars" and "hope" becomes "a new constellation," which we will have "to map," and we will have to name it "together." The idea that everyone is acting in lock step is pleasing only to a committed statist—a perfect piece of political propaganda for the most statist administration in the history of the United States of America.

Sources


Incorrectly Categorized

This article should be in Owlcation instead of Soapboxie; its commentary focuses on a poem not politics.

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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