Inauguration Anniversary & Poetry as a Public Act


As I wrote in “For All of Us, One Today,” there are moments in our lives that are more than memories. They are what lives inside our bodies, in every cell and heartbeat; imprinted in the undiscovered DNA of our souls. This morning I pause on one of those moments that happened exactly a year ago. But it’s an eternal moment: I’m still gazing at the thousands of flags fluttering like red-white-and-blue hummingbirds across the National Mall; still listening to James Taylor singing, his voice crisp and clear as the air that cold January day. I’m still tracing the sun at it climbs and comes to rest like a crown of light at the tip of the Washington Monument; and still with my mother sitting next to me, tasting the honey-filled candy she gave me to ease my nerves. I’m still fidgeting with a copy of the inaugural poem, going over each line one last time, until it became like a dove in my hands, ready to be let go into the world.

Waiting to be called up to the podium that day, I knew my life would be changed forever, and that nothing would ever be the same. I expected that. But what I hadn’t expected was that so many other lives would be touched by the poem and inspired to connect with poetry. Traveling throughout the country giving readings and speaking about poetry, I continue engaging with people from every imaginable walk of life, lifestyle, vocation and ethnicity. Many of them are new to poetry, sharing with me comments like, This is my first poetry reading ever. I never knew it could be like this, or This is the first book of poetry I’ve ever bought. I’m hooked. Many are moved by poetry to share their personal stories with me: stories about their estranged fathers, about their immigrant grandparents, about their coming out, about the loss of a son or daughter.

Throughout this incredible year of connecting to people, I’ve been thinking about poetry in the public realm—how it can serve as a catalyst to connect each of us to our truest selves, while also sharing in our collective humanity. Recently, my friend Heather Candels shared an intriguing photo which I think captures the sense of what I’ve been experiencing. It shows graffiti on a wall in Panama that reads: Poesía es decir la verdad (Poetry is to speak the truth). I love its message, but what fascinates me more is the act itself. Here we have an expression of what poetry means, living publicly for all to see and ponder. Beyond its literal message, the act implies that poetry matters, poetry is essential, poetry is public. In retrospect, I understand that reading “One Today” at the presidential inauguration last year had (and continues to have) the same implications: poetry belongs to us all, and is for all of us to partake in.

01.21.14 by Richard Blanco