Like millions of people around the world, I watched President Obama being sworn in as president of the United States for a second term. I wanted to see who attended the ceremony, what they said and what they wore. Richard Blanco, a poet unknown to me, had been invited to recite his poem.
When I was a child, I attended school in Ireland. The nuns made sure we learned such poems as “The Daffodils,” by William Wordsworth, and “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” by William Butler Yeats. One of my favorites was “A Soft Day,” by Winifred M. Letts, which began, “A soft day, thank God, a wind from the south with a honey’d mouth … the scent of drenching leaves …” Poems by Scottish poet Robert Louis Stevenson were also a must.
We enjoyed reciting poems off the tops of our heads and we used them as our party pieces. When I look back at all the things I studied in school, nothing fills me with so much pleasure as remembering some of the poems I learned there.
But now, it seems that poetry is not taught much in public schools. Still it’s common to see people searching through racks of greeting cards for the right rhyming verse to convey their special messages. People need poetry. It enhances language, builds vocabulary, boosts memory and encourages creativity. It elevates the spirit and helps me to delight in nature. Babies and young children love nursery rhymes. They are children’s first introduction to poetry. When they hear the lyrical sounds, they joyfully babble and coo along with them. Through them, children learn how to talk.
When Blanco began his poem titled “One Today,” I listened to every word. When he said, “My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors, each one yawning to life …” I was captivated. In simple non-rhyming English, he described everyday visuals like pencil-yellow school buses; fruit stands: apples, limes and oranges arrayed like rainbows begging our praise; and silver trucks, heavy with oil, teeming over highways alongside us. His words drew pictures of workers on their way to clean tables, or ring up groceries, as his mother did for 20 years.
He said that one light breathes color, life and warmth into stained-glass windows, bronze statues, museums and park benches. When he added, “the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain the empty desks of 20 children marked absent today, and forever,” the cameras captured the pain on Obama’s face as the memory of the murdered school children penetrated the world.
Blanco’s poem rooted us to the ground and the work done by hands. He described hands as worn as his father’s from cutting sugarcane, so he and his brother could have books and shoes. He reminded us of the simple sounds like the honking of cabs, the symphony of footsteps, the unexpected songbird on a clothesline. He brought back the sounds of squeaky playground swings, trains whistling or whispers across café tables.
As Blanco continued his unifying verses on how we all live under one sun, light, wind, sky and moon, I looked out the window at the snow-filled sky. I heard the wind whistling through the tall, naked trees. I felt I was one of the people in his poem living in a big family under one roof. His poem connected me to the world and made me a part of an indelible day in American history.