'One Today' has some fine lines, but writing good poetry for a grand national celebration is an impossible feat
The celebratory public poem is an extinct genre in our sceptical postmodern times, and probably ought to stay that way. It presents the writer with insurmountable challenges in form, tone and content. How do you praise your nation wisely – with honesty and caution? How do you root that public voice in the personal and private spaces where thoughts grow? How do you write a mass-market poem?
Richard Blanco's new inauguration poem, "One Today", composed to usher in Barack Obama's second term, is a valiant but not always convincing attempt to square the circles.
Ambitious in its length (69 lines), "One Today" reveals a novelistic eye for detail and broad, sweeping description. It begins, slightly heavy-handedly, with daybreak: "One sun rose on us today …" The rhymed spondee of "One sun" sets the recurrent motif, the theme of unity, picked up as the speaker moves through the day: "One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story/ told by our silent gestures moving behind windows." Later on, we have "one ground", "one wind" and, repeated in the last three stanzas "one sky", followed by "one moon" and (you saw it coming), "one country".
Parallelism is a useful device for creating an incantatory lift and narrative logic to a poem in danger of becoming a sprawl of lists, but what if the motif itself isn't strong enough to bear so much repetition? There's a logical problem here that a child could point out: it's not only America but the world which has one sky, one sun, one moon. The unity that pulls diversity together and gives everyone hope is an ideal rather than the reality being urged on us. The imaginative possibilities run down until there's really nothing to say, except the unexceptional: "… all of us –/ facing the stars / hope – a new constellation / waiting for us to map it, / waiting for us to name it – together."
The writing's not always this tired. As he takes us through the working day, Blanco quick-sketches in vivid strokes the "pencil-yellow school buses" and the "silver trucks heavy with oil or paper –/ bricks or milk". These bustling scenes are idealised, of course, but the descriptive simplicity is fresh and engaging. Later on, "we head home: through the gloss of rain or weight / of snow, or the plum-blush of dusk …" Here, a real unity of aspiration (if only to get home) is sensuously rendered.
Blanco dips into personal experience at times – most movingly when remembering his mother, ringing up groceries for 20 years "so I could write this poem". There is a little more strain when, alluding to the school-shooting at Newtown, he refers to "the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won't explain/ the empty desks of children marked absent/ today, and forever". There are other moments of trying too hard. How does the sky yield "to our resilience" in the lines about the Freedom Tower? As the writer hauls himself from poetry into public accountability, he loses some of his sureness of touch.
Jahan Ramazani, an editor of The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, has said of "One Today" that "a more knotty or abstruse poem … would have missed the mark as an act of public address as well as poetry". I agree, but it's perfectly possible to avoid the abstruse and not fall into banality, either. Blanco's poem achieves this delicate balance at times. There are lines simple in language and thought, and still effective as poetry, often because of the force of a single word: "mothers watch children slide into the day", "the day's gorgeous din of honking cabs" (my italics). But, as it goes on, the poem seems to be exhausted by its own energy. The use of imperatives ("breathe", "hear") rather desperately forces the pace.
It might seem that the biggest problem with writing a public poem is that crude simplifications are forced on a reluctant poet. Blanco, it seems, is able to write in this "genre" with more natural conviction than most. A shorter poem, and above all one with a tighter form, might have helped maintain a consistently high verbal pressure, with no sacrifice of accessibility.