President Obama returned again and again to one phrase, “We, the people,” in his second inaugural address, drawing Americans together to move into the next four years’s tasks: “Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation and one people....” Following his lead, Richard Blanco also sounded the tones of unity in his poem—a natural evolution considering that Blanco was asked to write three poems, from which the White House selected this one to be read at the ceremony. (No one has said whether Obama himself made the final choice, but we think it’s likely, because he is, after all, a poet himself.)
Blanco’s inauguration poem, “One Today,” seems to us to have its roots in Walt Whitman’s expansive list poems like “I Hear America Singing.” But Whitman is not among the predecessors Blanco named in his conversation with the Academy of American Poets, “Our People, Our Future: Richard Blanco in Conversation.” He cited the Presidential inauguration poems of Maya Angelou and Elizabeth Alexander, he recalled looking at “How To Write a Poem After September 11th” by Nikki Moustaki, and he used the poems of Robert Frost and Elizabeth Bishop for inspiration—but he made no mention of Whitman.
On first impression, “One Today” is a lovely invocation of the various lives and spirits of the American nation, following morning light across the country, touching on the grand themes our lives share but also bringing into focus the specific details of individual lives and events. The writing is certainly more fluid and the poem more fluently read than Elizabeth Alexander’s 2009 inauguration ceremony poem. Watch the YouTube video of Blanco’s reading posted by PBS NewsHour, and then please come back and tell us what you think of this year’s inauguration poem by posting a comment below.