Inaugural poet Richard Blanco has some advice for future Republican presidents: give it a try, the entire country – not just Democrats - could benefit more from the humanities.
That is especially the case today, with the country deeply polarized after four years of Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric.
There have only been six inaugural poets selected by four presidents, all of whom have been Democrats, the latest being Amanda Gorman, the 22-year-old black woman who stole the show on Wednesday.
“I think the humanities, poetry in particular, help us have a different kind of discourse,” said Blanco, who was Barack Obama’s inaugural poet in January 2013.
“Language matters, in the sense that words matter. And of course, this is what we as poets do,” he said.
In his inaugural speech, President Joe Biden, appealed for unity, a common theme in inaugurations when a country seeks to come together after a bitterly contested election season.
But critics are already questioning whether Democrats can legitimately call for unity while seeking to impeach Trump, who is already out of office, in a move which could further divide the country.
Before the country falls into more divisiveness, Blanco suggests now would be a good time to examine the harm that rhetoric has done to politics.
“What does that look like? I'm not even sure we really investigated that … Let's have the conversation. Let's have the diagnosis. Let's really look at what we got here. It's very easy to throw platitudes around and believe in them,” he said.
Blanco, who is Cuban-American, has another proposal for Congress. How about opening the session with a poem or a hymn, as has been suggested by House Democrat Jim Clyburn of South Carolina?
“Let's change the discourse. Let's start with a different note on things,” said Blanco, adding that the poem could be read aloud and discussed, like in high school.
“I just don't want us to think that just because we elected a new president that, you know, everything's fine and dandy. Let's hold hands and walk into the sunset,” he added.
Secretary for the Arts?
Blanco noted that, unlike other countries, the United States does not have a cabinet secretary for the arts.
President Biden has selected geneticist Eric Lander to be his science advisor and elevated the position to Cabinet rank. But what about the arts? The occupant of the White House does preside over the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, an advisory group founded in 1982. After Trump's handling of the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, everyone on the committee resigned.
Arts and culture make up a huge, $877 billion industry that generates more than five million jobs across the country. That’s almost as much as agriculture and far exceeds transportation.
Blanco also noted that in some countries, such as Britain the poet laureate is announced they are greeted by the Queen. “In this country, who knows if the president knows who the US poet laureate is.” (The 23rd U.S. poet laureate is Joy Harjo. She receives a $35,000 stipend from the Library of Congress to promote poetry through readings and lectures.)
Blanco says his husband likes to joke that more Americans have walked on the Moon (12) than given inaugural poems.
“If I were a Minister of Culture and the Humanities, I'd set up nationwide town meetings. Let's have a conversation, people,” he said.
“With the humanities, ultimately, what they do is let us exercise empathy and not empathy in the sort of the saccharine way, but empathy, meaning the ability to literally imagine yourself in somebody else's shoes,” he added.
Poets as fortune tellers
Blanco says the jobs of poets is sometimes to examine and make judgments on the past, but they can also look forward, like fortune tellers.
Blanco recently wrote a pandemic poem. “For months I was circling around it because I don't want to just sit in the mire of this despair and anxiety,” he said. “And so, I just left them thinking about a post pandemic world, but also thinking about the lessons that we've learned. Let's remember that we can’t take anything big or small for granted, including our democracy.”
In his 2012 poem, title ‘One Today’, Blanco addressed the issue of unity optimistically, describing an imperfect country that was still learning to deal with its differences in search of “a new constellation.”
The events of the last eight years suggest the country still has a long way to go to find that “new constellation.”
Wednesday’s poet, Gorman, captured that brilliantly, says Blanco, noting how the inaugural poem has to walk a fine line between a celebration of the occasion, and a reflection of the historical moment.
"Skinny black girl"
He spoke to Gorman a few days before the inauguration, giving her some tips on what to expect. He was impressed by the way she inserted herself into the poem, describing how “a skinny Black girl” can find herself reciting for a president.
Blanco says poets are just as much “part of this moment. We are not just there to dictate.”
In Gorman’s case it was especially dramatic. She was in the middle of writing her poem, The Hill We Climb, when the Capitol was stormed, at exactly two weeks previously at the exact same place where she was standing.
So, she wrote:
“We've seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy
And this effort very nearly succeeded
But while democracy can be periodically delayed
it can never be permanently defeated.”
Blanco did the same in his poem which he delivered shortly after the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school that claimed the lives of 20 small children.
“I felt like that was a moment that galvanized the country. And so, I felt it was important to put it there for the sake of posterity, just for the sake of documenting that moment in history,” he said.
In his most recent book, How to Love a Country, Blanco tackles current events such as the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, the Parkland high school shooting, and the rise of Trump.
Obama and Biden
Blanco lives in Maine and teaches poetry classes at Florida International University. He has stayed in touch with Obama and is a member of the advisory council for the Obama Foundation, helping create the presidential museum in Chicago. When it opens it will tell the story of the country’s first black president, and First Lady Michele Obama, as well as serving as a community center, complete with basketball courts.
Looking around at the current state of America, Blanco says his fortune teller instincts make him optimistic.
It helps that Biden is a lover of poetry himself, and that First Lady Jill Biden is an English teacher.
The president is known to quote Seamus Heaney, a famous poet who grew up in troubled Northern Ireland and is noted for his belief in peace and compassion.
“I think he has that on his radar. He’s a nice guy, very unintimidating, a sort of Grandpa. It sets a new tone for us,” he said.