January 11, 2013
by Kevin Murphy
Richard Blanco, a poet from Miami who was raised by Cuban parents, has been selected by the Obama camp to be this year’s inauguration poet. Blanco is the youngest (44), as well as the first Latino and openly gay poet chosen to participate in the inauguration ceremonies.
As he explained to the New York Times, Blanco feels especially connected to Obama’s upbringing and back story:
“Since the beginning of the campaign, I totally related to [Obama’s] life story and the way he speaks of his family. There has always been a spiritual connection in that sense. I feel in some ways that when I’m writing about my family, I’m writing about him.”
For the inauguration, which takes place on the steps of the Capitol in Washington D.C. on January 21st, Blanco intends to compose a poem that captures “the salt-of-the-earth sense that I think all Americans have, of hard work, we can work it out together, that incredible American spirit that after 200-plus years is still there.”
The first poet to participate in an American inauguration was Robert Frost, who at age 85 recited from memory “The Gift Outright” after poor eyesight and an overcast sky prevented the nearly blind poet from being able to read the new poem he had composed for the swearing-in of John F. Kennedy in 1961.
THE GIFT OUTRIGHT
The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.
In addition to Frost, Blanco joins poets Maya Angelou (1993), Miller Williams (1997) and Elizabeth Alexander (2009) in what has to be one of most nerve-racking experiences for a writer.
Indeed, as Ron Charles reports in the Washington Post,
The immensity of the task and the inauguration itself — spread across the whole Mall — poses its own unique challenges for any poet.
Garrison Keillor, whose “Writer’s Almanac” brings poetry every weekday to listeners of public radio, said in an e-mail, “This is one honor that should be politely declined. The poor poet steps out on stage in the midst of all that pomp and the vast crowd is restless and the poem drops (plink) like a small stone in a big lake and everyone thinks, ‘That’s it?’ Robert Frost made a good show of it, and everyone since then has been a clinker.”
Regardless, Blanco is excited about the opportunity. As the author of three poetry collections and a former engineer who only recently decided to focus on his writing full-time, he sounds fit for the challenge.
He tells NPR:
“I think I started writing it right there in my head [when I got the news]. Images just started coming to me. What’s interesting, as I think every inaugural poet has said, it’s a very difficult assignment because it is an occasional poem. But luckily, I really sort of have keyed in to the theme of the inauguration, which is Our People, Our Future, and writing about America is a topic that obsesses me in terms of cultural negotiation and my background as a Cuban-American. And so it wasn’t a completely unfamiliar topic … So as a subject I felt somewhat comfortable; but the challenge of it was how to maintain sort of that sense of intimacy and that conversational tone in a poem that obviously has to sort of encompass a whole lot more than just my family and my experience.”
Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.