I was in the car yesterday afternoon, listening to the inauguration on the radio. At the first lines of Richard Blanco’s official poem, my husband, Tom (a tall, patient public defender with a passion for Byron and old-fashioned hats), turned the sound down. I thought about footage of the crowd during the last inauguration, when the announcement of an extra bardic treat caused people to retreat, looking over their shoulders, as if it were a bomb threat coming over the loudspeaker.
Maybe it’s unfair to carp. The last great poet to have read at an inauguration was Robert Frost, in 1961; and his reading was significant only because his many lines celebrating more or less all of American history as a prelude to JFK proved unreadable in the bright sunlight. He instead recited “The Gift Outright,” a classic about American identity and sacrifice.
Still. In Blanco’s “One Today,” the sun rises over every region of the U.S.—actually “peeking” over the Smokies, as in an icky children’s book. But the poem as a whole is an epic commercial, about the dawn of hope for something not too well defined; hope from, um, everything: mirrors, trucks, “I Have a Dream,” hands doing things, greetings in various languages, playground equipment, one parent who was a big hit, one who kind of wasn’t but is magnanimously forgiven, etc. The big theme is oneness in diversity, but Bob Marley did a way better job and should probably have been referenced.
If there’s political meaning here, it’s that the fashionable ideology deserves the red-felt-tip comments of a proud and free English teacher—“weak content, poorly structured”—but is doomed to continue as a vehicle for glorified time-serving. Teachers nowadays aren’t supposed to use red ink, in case someone who’s done meaningless work should feel bad.