I was working on an in-depth post, sort of a brief history of inaugural poets, leading up to Richard Blanco, who will read at Barack Obama’s second inauguration later this morning. But like Robert Frost I found myself still typing late into the night. Unlike Robert Frost, I didn’t finish the work in time. Not that it did Frost a lot of good. The sun was glaring off the new fallen snow. It was cold. He was 86 . . . well, that’s how the story goes, the cold, the light in his eyes, he couldn’t read his manuscript. Having read a few lines from the poem he wrote, I suspect that the old trickster actually might have come to his senses and decided to recite his poem “The Gift Outright,” instead, knowing it to be the appropriate and superior poem for the occasion. I could imagine him afterward saying with a wink to President Kennedy, “Sorry, the sun was in my eyes.”
But I’ll give my run down of the history up til today later. For now, here’s the brief. There have only been five inaugural poets, selected by three presidents. All of whom were democrats. Well, the presidents anyway, Frost himself was a Republican, back in a day when it seemed the party allowed for artists a bit more than it seems to now.
Only two seem to be remembered as great readings, though frankly, as amazing as Frost’s poem is, in my opinion he read it far too fast. Had he paused between phrases, the way Kennedy did in oration, the way Frost sometimes did himself, it would have given time for the words to sink in. Frost, as Ian Crouch said this week in the New Yorker, “was not a controversial young upstart but, rather, a national treasure. (It was Frost, not Ginsberg. up there on the dais, after all.)” And his voice is somehow at once intelligent, engaging and yet country-humble.
Mia Angelou likely caused a few to scratch their heads, particularly those with more traditional or conservative ears for poetry. Perhaps they were waiting to hear lofty controversial lauds to a liberal agenda when she read for Bill Clinton’s ceremony. Instead they were baffled by a piece about a talking rock, a singing river and a tree. Still, the poem was powerful to those who had an ear for it.
I recall watching it on the monitor at a Christian radio station where I worked at the time. The owner said, “David, you’re the poet, tell me is she good?” Without taking my eyes off of her as she told us how the rock bid us to stand upon it, but admonished us to no longer hide in its shadow, I was awestruck. “Oh, she’s very good,” I said. The audience not only applauded, but cheered and shouted when she finished reading “On the Pulse of the Morning.”
I cannot find a recording of Miller Williams‘ “Of History and Hope,” but I like the poem very much, and am intrigued by its form. He had me in the opening line, “We have memorized America,” but I have no idea if he read quickly like Frost, or with rhythmic power like Angelou. If you, dear reader find an audio or video link to his reading, I’d be grateful for the link. As it is, google and I are stumped. I may have to record it myself.
Unfortunately one poet, Elizabeth Alexander was much made fun of on YouTube and even the Daily Show for her reading. This is sad, not just because of the lack of respect it shows for public ceremony, but because the poem itself, while not as iconic and multi-faceted as Frost’s, was really pretty good in its own right, seeking to find the great themes in the little daily acts of life and love. I was concerned that it’s ending lines, “On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,/ praise song for walking forward in that light,” sounded a bit too much like Angelou’s “On the pulse of this new day,” still this may have been a purposeful nod to her predecessor.
In any case, disrespectful as those videos and commentaries were, the truth is I didn’t like her reading much. While Frost recited his incredible piece far to quickly, there is after all such a thing as reading too slowly. She paused at places where there was no need to stop, and well, hey I would certainly be nervous were I given the honor to be in her shoes, but I think this video seems to show an audience that was not engaged. They seemed bored, and then uncertain about when the poem actually ended. A different video that I saw later with an up-close view of her face is easier to follow, and that one did show some enthusiasm from the crowd at the end. It’s just that so much of a great piece can be lost if the reading falls short of the poem itself.
Again, interestingly enough the poet could benefit from listening to JFK’s or even Barak Obama’s speeches. How they rarely pause between individual words in a sentence, but do pause between phrases and sentences, keeping the thoughts whole, but allowing each to be digested before the next one. If . . . you. . . pause too. . . much. . . between words, you risk the audience becoming impatient, and disinterested. I confess, I can understand that I understand why it was hard for many to connect with her poem, but I cannot imagine how I might have fared in her shoes. I do think I’d like to do a reading of it though, because the poem is worth hearing. Sadly great poets are not always the best at reading their own works. Watch this space. I’ll do my best to honor Dr. Alexander’s poem.
Garrison Keillor, like Ian Crouch, seems to say that only Frost’s poem was memorable, but I would have to disagree with Keillor–a rare thing for me to do, no doubt–and say that Mia Angelou’s work and delivery, which brought the crowd to a respectful frenzy comes in a close second.
Out of the five, Richard Blanco is the first Latino, the only openly gay, and at 44 years old, the youngest inaugural poet so far. But the question from folks like Keillor and Crouch, and well the rest of us really, is how will his poem be received? Or more to the point, how will it be delivered? Will America like it? Will the gods of poetry say “it is good?” I’ve already alluded to the fact that it’s not only the quality of the poem on paper, but at a public reading, it’s the delivery of the spoken word that makes it memorable, either as something to bring cheers, tears or sneers.
I am new to Blanco’s work, but having read several excellent pieces by him these last couple of weeks, I am confident that he can deliver not only the material but the proper mix of humility and gravitas. It doesn’t hurt that the guy is undeniably handsome, but his poetry is accessible and moving, personal and universal. I think his work is the the kind that the “man on the street” (does that guy ever go home, by the way?) can identify with. It also has a depth of feeling and vivid imagery that can captivate the skeptic. Not only that, but he has a great voice. Here he is reading, appropriately, “America.” The text follows the audio. Listen, and read and tell me if you think he’s got what it takes. I say he does.
And look at that. I’ve finished my brief history of inaugural poets after all.
at least half-a-dozen uses for peanut butter–
topping for guava shells in syrup,
butter substitute for Cuban toast,
hair conditioner and relaxer–
Mamà never knew what to make
of the monthly five-pound jars
handed out by the immigration department
until my friend, Jeff, mentioned jelly.
for every birthday and wedding,
whole ones on Christmas and New Year’s Eves,
even on Thanksgiving Day–pork,
fried, broiled or crispy skin roasted–
as well as cauldrons of black beans,
fried plantain chips and yuca con mojito.
These items required a special visit
to Antonio’s Mercado on the corner of 8th street
where men in guayaberas stood in senate
blaming Kennedy for everything–“Ese hijo de puta!”
the bile of Cuban coffee and cigar residue
filling the creases of their wrinkled lips;
clinging to one another’s lies of lost wealth,
ashamed and empty as hollow trees.
Overheard conversations about returning
had grown wistful and less frequent.
I spoke English; my parents didn’t.
We didn’t live in a two story house
with a maid or a wood panel station wagon
nor vacation camping in Colorado.
None of the girls had hair of gold;
none of my brothers or cousins
were named Greg, Peter, or Marsha;
we were not the Brady Bunch.
None of the black and white characters
on Donna Reed or on Dick Van Dyke Show
were named Guadalupe, Lázaro, or Mercedes.
Patty Duke’s family wasn’t like us either–
they didn’t have pork on Thanksgiving,
they ate turkey with cranberry sauce;
they didn’t have yuca, they had yams
like the dittos of Pilgrims I colored in class.
I explained to my abuelita
about the Indians and the Mayflower,
how Lincoln set the slaves free;
I explained to my parents about
the purple mountain’s majesty,
“one if by land, two if by sea”
the cherry tree, the tea party,
the amber waves of grain,
the “masses yearning to be free”
liberty and justice for all, until
finally they agreed:
this Thanksgiving we would have turkey,
as well as pork.
as if committing an act of treason,
faking her enthusiasm for my sake.
Mamà set a frozen pumpkin pie in the oven
and prepared candied yams following instructions
I translated from the marshmallow bag.
The table was arrayed with gladiolus,
the plattered turkey loomed at the center
on plastic silver from Woolworths.
Everyone sat in green velvet chairs
we had upholstered with clear vinyl,
except Tío Carlos and Toti, seated
in the folding chairs from the Salvation Army.
I uttered a bilingual blessing
and the turkey was passed around
like a game of Russian Roulette.
“DRY”, Tío Berto complained, and proceeded
to drown the lean slices with pork fat drippings
and cranberry jelly–“esa mierda roja,” he called it.
Faces fell when Mamá presented her ochre pie–
pumpkin was a home remedy for ulcers, not a dessert.
Tía María made three rounds of Cuban coffee
then abuelo and Pepe cleared the living room furniture,
put on a Celia Cruz LP and the entire family
began to merengue over the linoleum of our apartment,
sweating rum and coffee until they remembered–
it was 1970 and 46 degrees–
After repositioning the furniture,
an appropriate darkness filled the room.
Tío Berto was the last to leave.
- First Gay, Latino Inaugural Poet’s ‘América’ Tells Every Immigrant’s Story (newamericamedia.org)
- Cuban exile mother of poet laureate Richard Blanco now in spotlight as his inspiration (miamiherald.com)
- Gay Poet Richard Blanco To Deliver Obama’s Inaugural Poem (ontopmag.com)
- Inaugural poet: My story is America’s (edition.cnn.com)
- Richard Blanco to Read at Obama’s Second Inauguration (dadpoet.wordpress.com)
- Poetry for Presidents (newyorker.com)
- Richard Blanco, Symbol of Diversity, Selected As Obama’s Inaugural Poet (newsfeed.time.com)
- Miami man to serve as inaugural poet (local10.com)