I Know Poetry Can Matter
The following is an excerpt from For All of Us, One Today, poet Richard Blanco's memoir about writing and reading the inaugural poem in 2013.
Nestled in our seats at the airport, Mark and I wait to board our flight back home. We’re still electrified but too exhausted to even speak. All we can do is quietly watch the mass of people herding through the terminal: businessmen in suits clutching their iPads or military men in uniform lugging their duffle bags, women in pantsuits or mothers pushing their strollers, everyone in the act of leaving or returning, in the mystic flux of journey. The public-address system sounds like an oracle, announcing flights, calling out passenger names and their destinations. And it all feels strangely familiar, old yet new, sharp yet dull, bright yet muted, like those few minutes some mornings in bed with half my life still in a dream and the other half of me being born anew into the miracle of yet another morning. The end of one story inexplicably transitioning into another.
It’s the first opportunity I have to truly sit quietly for a moment and reflect on the whole experience of the inauguration with a little distance. I’m again struck with a knowing that nothing will ever be the same, though I’m not sure what those changes and experiences will be or how they will indeed prove to me that poetry can have a place and power in our contemporary lives, like no other art form.
It’s about thirty minutes before our departure time. I don’t know that in a few months I will interview with the editors of the Newtowner, an arts and literature magazine from Newtown, Connecticut. We will plan classroom visits and a special event on the anniversary of the Sandy Hook tragedy to bring the community together in poetry and healing, as I had wanted to do since the day it happened, since the day I penned “One Today” to remember those children forever. I don’t know of the thousands of people who will stir my soul through letters I will receive, each one sharing a life changed by their reflection in “One Today” or my other poems, enthused by a rekindled or newfound love for poetry. I don’t know that in May I’ll meet President Obama in the Oval Office and we will speak about his and the First Lady’s ongoing commitment to poetry. I will present the president with Sergio’s beautiful broadside of “One Today,” which he’ll hang in his back office where he’ll say he keeps those things closest to him.
The boarding process begins. I get in line, but I don’t know of the Boston Marathon bombings, the boy and two young women whose lost lives I’ll feel compelled to immortalize in “Boston Strong,” an occasional poem I’ll write and read before tens of thousands of people at the opening of a concert at Boston’s TD Garden to benefit the survivors and victims’ families. Imagine, a poem (in America) as an opening act—so to speak—for James Taylor, Jimmy Buffett, Carole King, the Backstreet Boys, Aerosmith, and other artists who will come together for the cause. Imagine poetry being able to make a difference alongside them. A few weeks later I’ll read the same poem again in Fenway Park before a Red Sox game: baseball, hot dogs, poetry, and apple pie—why not? I don’t know that I will also be asked to write and read another occasional poem for the Tech Museum of Innovation at their annual awards gala in Santa Clara, California. Poetry in Silicon Valley—why not?
I fasten my seatbelt as instructed without knowing that in June the Supreme Court will rule the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional in favor of Edith Windsor, and I will team up with the Freedom to Marry organization to write a love poem commemorating a ten-year struggle for marriage equality. I can’t imagine a poet—much less me— will be the grand marshal of the gay pride parade in Portland, Maine. I don’t know that I will speak at Portland’s Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, read poems and sing “God Bless America” like I never have before alongside Somali and Congolese, whose stories of and love for this country would be as epic as my mother’s. I can’t fathom that a poet—much less me—will be honored with keys to the cities of Portland, Miami, and Miami Beach. I don’t know that I’ll again be in the company of celebrities such as Taylor Swift at the Fragrance Foundation Awards in New York’s Lincoln Center, where I will read a poem I wrote, “To the Artists of the Invisible,” blending the romance of scents with the sense of words. Perfume and poetry— why not?
The plane pushes back from the gate, but I don’t know about the grade school and high school teachers from around the country who will send me hundreds of poems, drawings, and letters by their students, inspired and given hope by “One Today.” I do not know that I will be asked to read and share my story and poems at a conference of engineers, one of whom will stand up and confess to everyone in the room that he’s been writing poetry for years to make sense of his life. As I have. I do not know that after a poetry reading on Cape Cod a woman will embrace me and recite a line from one of my poems (. . . pretend that nothing lost, is lost) as tears well up in her eyes because she can’t help pretending she hasn’t lost the son she’d lost just a few months ago. Nor have I met the woman in Vermont who will tell me she keeps a copy of “One Today” on her kitchen table and reads it on those days she feels she can’t go on. I’ll tell her poetry is what keeps me going, too. Nor has the elderly man from Buffalo confided in me that he’s written into his will that “One Today” be read at his funeral. I’ll remember my own wish to have Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” read when I die.
The plane taxies down the runway without my knowing that in July I’ll read my poetry at the Robert Frost farm in Derry, New Hampshire. I will walk through his home, sit in his chair at the kitchen table where he wrote, and feel the ghost of his words at my fingertips as I lay my hands over the typewriter keys. Suddenly I will understand why Frost was Frost—arguably our country’s most celebrated, honored, popular, and remembered poet—because he wrote about (and for) the things and people right before him, his America, plain and true. His work was embedded in folklore, sprung from the very pastures and pleasures, snows and sorrows of the people—including himself—in his own backyard, so to speak. Inspired and possessed, I’ll feel reborn into yet another story—the story Frost began for America. I’ll feel a responsibility to dare and dream up a new chapter that will rekindle poetry into a continuing American folklore—a folklore that would include the stories of gay America, Latino America, and immigrant America—everyone’s America.
The jet’s engine begins revving up, and so do I, beginning to think about this memoir that I will write in the months to come: part proclamation, part call to action, but all testimony—not to the power of me, or my work, or my story, but to the power of poetry as I will have witnessed it; to the hunger for poetry in our country; to the powerful role it can play and the influence it can have on so many lives, including my own. I know—believe—there’s a new dawn at hand for poetry and for poets as heroes, which parallels a new dawn in America and its changing human landscapes. I know I have work to do. I know I have to get back home—yes, through the gloss of rain or weight of snow, or the plum blush of dusk—and begin writing. I know poetry can matter.