Randy Malamud, the Regents' professor and chair of English at Georgia State University, wrote an opinion piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education about Richard Blanco's poem for the inauguration. Below is an excerpt of what he wrote:
Blanco—who, according to his Web site, has a "poetry dance—a little Michael Jackson-inspired shtick I do around the house in my pajamas when I am high from a good-poem day"—was a great choice for the inaugural honor. But "One Today," in my opinion, falls flat. It reads like an early draft of what could be a good poem. I'm trying to restrain automatic prejudice against quickly made-to-order poetry, but I find the effort slapdash, and simply not very coherent.
It's full of clichés: the din of honking cabs and buses, a songbird on a clothesline, the sun rising over the Rockies. Emotional clichés too: the father who, early in the poem, worked hard so that the son could have books and shoes, but still, later in the poem, couldn't give his child what he wanted; the mother who rang up groceries so that the poet could write this poem. (Poets should be very wary of writing poems about writing poems.)
The title itself is awkward, elusive. Today we are one? There is only one today? Every day is today? I'm not sure.
Blanco's imagery doesn't resonate as clever or creative—which is, of course, the burden of poetry: pencil-yellow school buses, squeaky playground swings, the plum blush of dusk, the moon like a silent drum tapping on the rooftops. The word "howdy" should probably never appear in a poem, and certainly not sandwiched among a polyglot smorgasbord of howdies: shalom, buon giorno, namaste, buenos dias. "Crescendoing" is another word that feels out of place.
Blanco strains to bring in the 9/11 attacks, juxtaposing the handiwork of a person making the first brush stroke of a painting with that of someone completing "the last floor on the Freedom Tower / jutting into a sky that yields to our resistance." I find this dubious, gratuitous.
Even more unexpectedly, Blanco works in a reference to the Newtown killings, in a passage that's especially difficult to follow. A stanza that begins with images of learning and imagination takes a forced detour to Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, and ends oddly—it's not clear how we got here—with churches, museums, and parks. Amid all this, in a jolting scene that strikes me as impious and insufficiently thought out, Blanco meanders into "the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won't explain / the empty desks of twenty children marked absent / today, and forever."
It's not that poetry can't or shouldn't invoke last month's massacre—but the decision to broach this tremendously raw tragedy should be accompanied by a sensitive, courageous, meaningful treatment that does justice to the pain as it is recalled in the poem. There's a heavy responsibility in writing about this. I don't know exactly what is the right way to remember those poor children, but "marked absent / today, and forever" is not it. This misstep is a symptom of what's too undigested, too unsettled, about "One Today" as a whole.
I think Blanco's intent—a sensible one for the occasion—was to create a vast, varied portrait of our country. It's the kind of task that Alexander achieved more subtly and comfortably in her poem four years ago, a smooth confluence of cultural and historical images which contrasted quotidian American life and the monumentally historic importance of Obama's first inauguration day. Alexander's poem has many thematic similarities with Blanco's (children and parents, the hard work of living each day, the awe of a unifying moment in America), but she succeeds, where Blanco fails, at handling the task eloquently. I guess she works well under deadlines.
"One Today" is a frenetic mishmash. No poetry dances here, I'm afraid.
I could not disagree more with Dr. Malamud. As one commenter wrote:
The simple poem effectively wrapped around the otherwise "frenetic mishmash" that we as Americans are and that the Inauguration Day festivities likewise were.
Patriotism may be the last refuge of a scoundrel, but the homespun images of diversity seemed both democratic and moving--hopeful, really, as I think the poet intended and entirely appropriate for the occasion. The image of the one moon "tapping on every rooftop and every window" is one that lingers.
I found "One Today" to be a beautiful poem that was very pertinent to today. It is also hopeful of a better tomorrow. Though much of what Dr. Malamud wrote, I disagree with, I especially disagreed with the line "The title itself is awkward, elusive. Today we are one? There is only one today? Every day is today? I'm not sure." I do not see what is elusive or awkward about a poem that brings together Americans or that symbolizes how on Inauguration Day, we are all one. It's sad that Dr. Malamud missed the grace and fluidity of the poem. The poem was straightforward and not an obtuse piece of tedious dribble that often comes from academics, which is probably part of the reason that Blanco is no longer in academia.
Professors of English far too often want something so complicated that they only want themselves to be able to interpret it for us. They are also a jealous bunch who loves to criticize, which is most of academia. For every book review I wrote in college and grad school, my professors always loved the negative reviews and hated the positive ones. Those in academia are trained to rip to shreds each others work. It is, sadly, the nature of the beast.
Every Tuesday, I post a poem to my blog. All of those I poems, I find beauty in their words. That is what poetry is, the beautiful assemblage of words. Poetry should speak to those reading it. It should cause an emotional reaction down to your soul. The best poems are those that are understandable and evoke strong feelings. Whether it is there cadence or composition, poetry is, for me, the height of of wordly beauty. For whatever true problem Dr. Malamud has with Blanco's poem, I found it to be a poem for everyone, and a poem that is for everyone to be "One Today" and hopefully tomorrow as well. Being written and read by a gay Latino poet, "One Today" evoked the beauty of the American spirit and founding principle: E Pluribus Unum.