As I watched poet Richard Blanco step to the podium, taking his place in the national spotlight, it was hard not to wonder what my fellow Americans were thinking, particularly those many Americans for whom this might be their only exposure to poetry for a long time. Two stanzas in, I realized that I was clenching my teeth and holding my breath, inwardly cheering for this poet the way one watches a teammate at the free throw line taking a last second shot. I wanted him to be individually successful in this moment, as a poet, to recite well a fine poem, which I believe he did, that tries to capture an American moment as only poetry can. I was rooting for Blanco as one who wears the same throwback jersey.
We may or may not wonder about and/or lament the many reasons poetry no longer occupies a central place in our culture, but it is difficult to argue against that fact. I understand that for many, watching a poet come to the stage must still seem an oddity, and somehow akin to other decorous and traditional curiosities of the day: the cannons firing blanks out on the lawn, the giant gilded portraits of Adams and Madison et al in the Great Hall. Especially following a powerful speech by our fantastically eloquent Commander-in-Chief, and squeezed into the glare between performances by Kelly Clarkson and Beyonce, it’s hard not to ask: What place does poetry occupy? What can it communicate to our culture now?
Unlike some poets, I’m quite cynical about the former question. I recognize that to the wider culture poetry may seem outmoded and peripheral, insular and strange, though I personally feel that poetry remains a thriving river that runs behind the scenes and through the American–and human–spirit, regardless if its din is drowned out. And though many may feel otherwise, regarding the latter question, I know that poetry has something unique and powerful to offer us as individuals and as a nation, and I hope there are some Americans who felt that today in a way they haven’t before, or for some time. (Although apparently it wasn’t Eric Cantor).
Ultimately I’m thrilled, and so grateful to Barack Obama for continuing the tradition of featuring an inaugural poet, and for his proclamation in so doing, that, at its core, answers both questions affirmatively–that poetry has a place on the national stage and still has, centuries later, a message that speaks directly to our humanity, a message that is simple, and, like Blanco’s, that cuts through the pomp and the glare, that reminds us of the sun rising, of a rainbow of fruit, the breath of our songs, of traffic going by, of our work and our hopes, of us looking to the sky, of our many languages, of our one today.