“One Today” – An Inaugural Poem of National Unity

In his Inauguration Day poem, Richard Blanco talks about the broad unity of this country and the forces that pull us together.  He also names the little details of various Americans as they experience daily life and work.  He mentions, as well, his own family: his brother, his mom, and his dad.  It is a deeply personal poem, at the same time, a celebration of the strength, and beauty, and diversity of his adopted country.  

With Richard’s kind permission, we have included the full text of the poem on this What’s Up? webpage.  You can read along with him as you listen to the recording of Richard in Washington, DC on January 21, 2013.  To help you understand his poem, we have listed the more difficult expressions and cultural concepts below the text.  We would love to hear your reactions to the poem.  Please share with us how Richard’s reading made you feel about country and belonging.

 L to R: Michelle Obama, President Obama, Richard Blanco, Vice-President Biden, Jill Biden

L to R: Michelle Obama, President Obama, Richard Blanco, Vice-President Biden, Jill Biden

“One Today”

Written by Richard Blanco for the 2nd Obama inaugural ceremony.  Watch him reading here.

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,

peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces

of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth

across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.

One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story

told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning's mirrors,

each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:

pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,

fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows

begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—

bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,

on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—

to teach geometry, or ring up groceries as my mother did

for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,

the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:

equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,

the "I have a dream" we keep dreaming,

or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won't explain

the empty desks of twenty children marked absent

today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light

breathing color into stained glass windows,

life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth

onto the steps of our museums and park benches

as mothers watch children slide into the day.

One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk

of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat

and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills

in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands

digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands

as worn as my father's cutting sugarcane

so my brother and I could have books and shoes.

The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains

mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it

through the day's gorgeous din of honking cabs,

buses launching down avenues, the symphony

of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,

the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.

Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,

or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open

for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,

buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días

in the language my mother taught me—in every language

spoken into one wind carrying our lives

without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.

One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed

their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked

their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:

weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report

for the boss on time, stitching another wound

or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,

or the last floor on the Freedom Tower

jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.

One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes

tired from work: some days guessing at the weather

of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love

that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother

who knew how to give, or forgiving a father

who couldn't give what you wanted.

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight

of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,

always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon

like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop

and every window, of one country—all of us—facing the stars

hope—a new constellation

waiting for us to map it,

waiting for us to name it—together.


New Vocabulary and Cultural Concepts

kindled = started a fire

Smokies = Smoky Mountains (southeastern U.S.)

Great Plains = the flat, open grasslands of the U.S. between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi

River (including the states of N. Dakota, S. Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas,

Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico)

charging = running/moving forward with speed and power

crescendoing = building to a peak, like the high part of a symphony

arrayed = spread out, arranged

teeming = actively full of, alive with motion

ledgers = accounting books

ring up groceries = work as a grocery cashier

vital = important, crucial, alive

“I have a dream” = the name of Martin Luther King’s famous speech about equality for all Americans

twenty children = the elementary school victims of a mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012

stained glass windows = multi-colored windows of a church

sown = planted

gleaning = harvesting, collecting

trenches = long, vertical holes dug for laying cables and pipes in the ground

plains = large, flat, wide, open fields

mingled = mixed together

din = loud, continuous mixture of noises (as in a city)

screeching = loud, high-pitched noise

clothes line = the rope in people’s yards for air-drying freshly washed laundry

squeaky = the noise made when metal is rubbing with friction (without oil)

shalom = hello in Hebrew

buon giorno = hello in Italian

howdy = hello in rural or cowboy talk

namaste = hello in Hindi

buenos días = hello in Spanish

Appalachians = Appalachian Mountains (eastern U.S.)

Sierras = Sierra Mountains (western U.S.)

worked = moved, flowed

stitching = sewing, repairing

wound = cut, injury

Freedom Tower = new building in New York City to replace the fallen Twin Towers

jutting = sticking out, pushing forward

yields = gives way

resilience = ability to not give up, strong persistence

gloss = shine

plum = purple

dusk = moment between daylight and nighttime

constellation = group of stars in the sky

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.