David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: A Poet and a President

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A funny thing happened on the way to President Obama’s second inauguration Monday. The president’s speech and Richard Blanco’s poem got reversed.

Broadly speaking, one’s expectations of political rhetoric is that, at its worst, it reduces complex argument to slogans and platitudes or, at its best, that it singles out constituencies and individual citizens in order to focus on the day-to-day concerns that society can address. I’m speaking of political rhetoric that highlights contemporary American stories that are, on the one hand, connected to the stories of Americans throughout our history and that, on the other hand, inspire and inform and lead to the making of improved public policy.

And, again broadly speaking, I suppose one’s expectations of a poem in a public space is that it mythologizes experience and transforms ideas into metaphor, at its best, or that it transforms the ambitions of the one as representative of the many. This second characterization has certainly been the story of American poetry ever since Walt Whitman (another gay poet associated with a president from Illinois) wrote the following:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

But those two expectations — generalizations as they are — got flipped. The president’s speech was the poetry of connection and “consent,” as in Jefferson’s idea of the “consent of the governed.” It was a poetry of connection in terms of Whitman’s idea of “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” in which Obama ties his ambitions to those of everyday citizens (for a great take on this thinking, read Wendy Willis’s “Throwing Down the Gauntlet for Citizenship”). In the president’s speech, he leads us back to the founding document favored by Abraham Lincoln — the Declaration of Independence as opposed to the Constitution. Obama connects our contemporary lives as individuals with the “self-evident” truths that we are not only equal but that, as Whitman will say in his elegy for Lincoln, we are also “companions.”

On the other hand, Richard Blanco’s poem was the poetry of private lives, a catalogue of existences in which the politically-charged myth of his private story is individuated and highlighted (my father, my mother) and concludes with a platitude, a slogan: “hope — a new constellation / waiting for us to map it, / waiting for us to name it — together.”

Others have weighed in on the merits of Blanco’s poem. I’m really not game to do that. It’s not like Beyonce had to write a new song for the inauguration. She got to sing one everybody already knows by heart. It was a big-hearted poem. But, fair to say, “One Today” is not a a public poem. It’s a poem of private experiences spoken in a public forum. Carol Rumens at The Guardian calls it, at best, “valiant.”

Over on the Daily Beast, Andrew Sullivan brings some across-the-pond enthusiasm for Blanco’s poem. Except for Sullivan’s embarrassing bed-wetting after the debate in Denver during the 2012 general election, Sullivan is usually an accurate and compelling thinker. His September 2012 piece on Obama’s transformative presidency is thoughtful. He’s certainly prolific.

But that fecundity sometimes leads him off course because in cheering Blanco’s poem as Whitmanesque, he misses the essential difference between the passage he quotes by Blanco and the one by Whitman.

Blanco:

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.

Whitman:

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand
singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or
at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of
the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows,
robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

In Blanco’s passage, his focus is on the hands that belong to individuals, hands that glean and dig and are worn. The hands are symbols for the Americans who go about their daily jobs. These depictions are isolated, individual dramas, such as the one Blanco mythologizes about his father’s hands and how his fathered wonderfully cared for his children. This is a singular, private, standard sort of contemporary American poetry of the self.

In the Whitman passage, everyone is singing individual songs. But, here’s the important fact, they are singing them together. That’s what Whitman hears when hears “America singing.” I mean, he doesn’t hear “Americans singing.” It’s e pluribus unum. That’s the essential difference Sullivan misses.

And that’s what Obama also understood and accomplished in his speech as well. He both hears and sings with America. He does not separate himself from us. His is a poem to an America that includes both him and us. It’s a hymn to the collective, the “you and I.” Americans together. Not separate. For this reason, among others, Obama’s 2nd inaugural may well be remembered and recalled by Democrats for generations. It’s a clarion defense of the legacy of the New Deal and the New Frontier. It’s the poetry of democratic liberal governance.

But I’ve got to ask: Are we American poets ever going to unsnap our art from the self? I’m not saying we should. Just wondering if we are able to. I’ve got to believe the answer is yes. (And, don’t get me wrong: I believe too that every poet should write whatever kind of poem he or she wants. It’s none of my business. But when a poet writes a poem for the nation, well…then it is my business to have an opinion.) Given the opportunity, our Inaugural Poets (save Frost’s recitation of “The Gift Outright”) have lugged the individual onto the west side of the Capitol and trotted out their catalogues of selves. Even they’ve misread Whitman.

I want to give voice too to a nagging question from the quarter of poets who believe no poet should participate in public rituals like inaugurations when the government is involved in war, drone attacks, torture, and other like acts. They ask: Are these poems simply propaganda in service of immoral government? I’m not of this opinion. I think poets should be included in public ceremonies and ought to figure out how to do it better, do it in a way that honors both the public and the poem.

Finally, John F. Kennedy, who inaugurated the custom of inviting a poet to read at presidential inaugurations, once said, “When power leads man to arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence.” Two days ago, not literally but largely, it seemed to me like it went the other way around.


David Biespiel is the author of five collections of poetry: Charming Gardeners, The Book of Men and Women, Wild Civility, Pilgrims & Beggars, and Shattering Air. More from this author →