The poem that was read aloud Monday at President Obama’s second inauguration was deeply personal to the Maine poet who wrote it, scholars said, but its theme was universal: This country offers tremendous possibility, yet its real greatness stems from the unity of its citizenry.
Richard Blanco, a little-known poet from Bethel in western Maine, was elevated to the national stage when he was selected to be Obama’s inaugural poet. He is only the fifth poet to compose an original piece for an inauguration.
The first was Robert Frost, who read at President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural in 1961. President Bill Clinton chose Maya Angelou for his first inauguration, in 1993.
Blanco’s nine-stanza poem, “One Today,” referred to the country’s agricultural and industrial history and its majestic mountains and rivers. Fittingly, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it evoked King’s most famous speech. And it spoke of “the empty desks of twenty children marked absent today, and forever,” because of last month’s shootings in Newtown, Conn.
The poem included references to Blanco’s immigration to this country from Spain, and to his parents — his mother, who rang up groceries for 20 years “so I could write this poem,” and his father, who cut sugar cane “so my brother and I could have books and shoes.”
He talked of unity: “my face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors.” He talked of the United States’ changing demographics: “Hear: the doors we open for each other all day, saying: hello … in every language spoken into one wind carrying our lives without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.”
He talked of hope: “a new constellation, waiting for us to map it, waiting for us to name it — together.”
In many ways, Blanco, who is 44, Hispanic and openly gay, represents the changing face of America. Addie Whisenant, spokeswoman for the inaugural committee, said last week that the president chose Blanco because his “deeply personal poems are rooted in the idea of what it means to be an American.”
George Kinghorn, executive director of the University of Maine Museum of Art, is a friend of Blanco and watched the inauguration with pride Monday.
“If you know his poetry, he’s able to conjure up a lot of imagery and engage all of the senses,” Kinghorn said. “But he stayed true to his own voice. He spoke to the country, but he brought it back to his life and his family.”
The response to Blanco’s poem was positive, with many scholars comparing Blanco’s work to that of Walt Whitman, who raised the profile of free verse poetry in the mid- to late 1800s.
“The beauty of the Richard Blanco poem is that it doesn’t really need to be broken down or explained,” said Joseph Heithaus, a poet and professor at DePauw University in Indiana. “The poem, through its rhythm, its long catalog of images, its invitation to the listener to hear the simple music of a day, and finally to collectively, as citizens, name our own constellation was clear and poignant.”
Heithaus said Blanco’s task was huge — to speak to and for a nation without giving in to generalities.
“I often say to my creative-writing students that the singular almost always beats the plural, that the single object, the particular experience, usually wins out over some plural cover-all,” he said. “Blanco used the singular experiences of many across the nation to represent the collective.”
Steven Evans, an English professor at the University of Maine and coordinator of the New Writing Series, agreed that Blanco’s task was difficult, and said the poet responded.
“He was able to sound some universal notes with some unifying metaphors, but also spoke specifically to the American experience,” Evans said. “He was personal and universal. That’s extremely difficult to do.”
Anthony Walton, an English professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, said the poem was brilliant in its ability to connect with so many people simultaneously.
“I was moved by how, in the spirit of such American public poets as Whitman and (Carl) Sandburg, his vision was both large-hearted and specific, both celebratory and truth-telling. Writing a poem that important on ‘deadline’ is not an enviable task, and he rose to the occasion.”
Blanco has published three books of poetry and is an engineer by trade. He also serves on Bethel’s planning board. He could not be reached for comment Monday.
Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: