Barack Obama inexorably altered the trajectory of Richard Blanco's career when he asked the poet to read an occasional poem at his second inauguration in January of 2013. That honor placed the poet in rarified company: Blanco became the first Latinx inaugural poet, the first gay inaugural poet, the first immigrant imaugural poet. It sealed his place forever in the history books.
Blanco's inaugural poem, unfortunately, was unmemorable — a description of ordinary Americans going about their day, an appeal to common purpose, a tribute to waking up and meeting your responsibilities. I watched the inauguration and I can remember Blanco standing at the podium and reading, but in my memory he says nothing. His presence was more noteworthy than his words.
Inaugural poet, to be fair, is a thankless job. Robert Frost, the first inaugural poet, wrote a stodgy occasional poem titled "For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration" to preface a reading of "The Gift Outright" as the first inaugural performance by a poet. Maya Angelou responded to Frost by telling the story of America through her autobiography in "On the Pulse of Morning" in 1993.
But even in comparison to those two (decidedly mixed) performances, Blanco's poem (and the poem by Obama's other inaugural poet, Elizabeth Alexander) feels almost weightless. Blanco, thankfully, didn't try to assume Frost's pompous air. But he lacked the performance and urgency of Angelou's poem. It was an occasional poem in the worst sense of the word: a poem that doesn't stay with you, that you only recall every now and again.
Still, Blanco is now engraved in the history books as That Inaugural Poet — a position arguably more important than the national post of Poet Laureate. His reading of the poem, too, is tied to the last election that made sense for most American liberals — a final gasp of normalcy before the flood of chaos in 2016. (Could you imagine who Trump's selection for inaugural poet would have been? The omission of a poem at his inauguration was almost a blessing.)
It's clear that if Obama hadn't given Blanco the call, Blanco's most recent collection, How to Love a Country, would not exist. This is a book at the crossroads of poetry and civics, a lyrical inspection of what it means to be an American. Blanco writes in an Author's Note at the end of the book that...
...the public role I was assigned as inaugural poet prompted me to to explore more deeply my own civic and artistic duty in questioning and contributing to the American narrative through my poetry and the capacity of the genre itself to foster understanding and offer new perspectives.
In How to Love a Country, Blanco collects several occasional poems honoring, among others, the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing and the Pulse nightclub shooting. He read a poem to honor the re-opening of the American Embassy in Cuba. He wrote about the history of racism in Saint Louis.
Blanco, in other words, has become an Important Poet, and How to Love a Country is interested in tackling the important questions of America in the 21st century. His earnestness is raw and real. This book is a statement, an underlining of the American values of inclusivity and compassion that Blanco feels have vanished from the discourse.
I just wish it were a little more even, is all.
The best poems in How to Love a Country are the ones that directly take on the presidency of Donald Trump. Two poems right at the beginning, "Election Year" and "Dreaming a Wall," recognize the anxiety of the Trump presidency and try to formulate a response to it. In "Election Year," Blanco writes "...you lose sleep,/uncertain if the garden you cherish will survive/despite your care." That's an insomnia that most of us have shared on at least one long evening or another since November of 2016.
In "Dreaming a Wall," Blanco takes Frost's "Mending Wall" a step further, imagining the wall-builder as a kind of Trump-y Grinch with a vendetta against his neighbors:
Mortar mixed thick with anger, each brick laid
heavy with revenge, he smiles as he finishes
the last course high enough to imagine them
more miserable and lonely than him alone
behind his wall, worshipping his greener lawn,
praising his fresher air, under his bluer, bluer sky.
Is it heavy-handed? Yes. Is it affecting? Also yes.
But parts of the book tip over into sanctimoniousness. A long autobiographical poem titled "American Wandersong" is just as full of itself as the name would imply. Poems about school shootings and the Boston bombing are well-intentioned but so direct and so wounded that they lack the grace poetry brings to events that have been pounded into meaninglessness by the nightly news.
How To Love a Country would likely have benefitted from a little more beauty, a little less newspaper-headline immediacy, a bit less importance and gravity. Let me clear: things are bad in America right now, and they could very well get worse in short order. But art that relentlessly reminds us of how bad things are, and how high the stakes are, isn't doing anything to help. How to Love a Country feels like a funeral sermon that's scientifically calculated to make the room cry. An elegy that doesn't mention death is a dishonest one, it's true. But it is also true that an elegy without moments of joy and laughter is only halfway complete.
What would Blanco be writing about now, had he not been selected as Obama's second inaugural poet? I have no doubt that he'd still be focusing on politics and immigration and America and all the other topics that matter most to him. But I also wonder if his poems would be a little less stiff and a little more approachable if he didn't have to carry that burdensome yoke of Inaugural Poet everywhere he goes.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston’s grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle’s own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant