Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Richard Blanco's inaugural poem for Obama is a valiant flop

'One Today' has some fine lines, but writing good poetry for a grand national celebration is an impossible feat

Richard Blanco at Obama inauguration
Could be verse ... Richard Blanco (right) reads for the Obama family, and the world, at the presidential inauguration in Washington DC. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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".

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