Reading “One Today”

January 30th, 2013

Over at the New York Times Learning Network blog, Carol Jago, the president of the National Council of Teachers of English, provides a lesson plan for teachers to use with Richard Blanco’s poem “One Today” (text below). Blanco wrote the poem at the request of President Barack Obama and read it at the presidential inauguration earlier this month. 

As the Times points out, it was John F. Kennedy who began the inaugural poet tradition by asking Robert Frost to read his poem “The Gift Outright” at Kennedy’s inauguration. Frost wrote another poem, “Dedication,” to also read at the event, but, due to blinding glare from the snow, was unable to read it, performing only “The Gift Outright” from memory. Other presidents who have had inaugural poets include Jimmy Carter (James Dickey), Bill Clinton (Maya Angelou and Miller Williams), and, in 2009, Barack Obama (Elizabeth Alexander). 

According to Jago, Blanco’s “One Today” “describes a country under ‘one sun’ and ‘one light,’ where people toil on ‘one ground, our ground.’ Reminiscent of Carl Sandburg’s ‘Chicago’ and Walt Whitman’s ‘I Hear America Singing,’ the poem celebrates the common work of uncommon individuals.”

She continues with the following questions for teachers to lead in discussing the poem with their students:

  • In the first and seventh stanzas, the speaker makes reference to geographical places. What do these places suggest? What do they mean to Americans?
  • Throughout the poem we find many references to labor and work. Identify these lines and phrases. What kind of work does the speaker in the poem honor and respect? What are these lines saying about America and Americans?
  • This poem was first read on Martin Luther King’s Birthday celebration in Washington. Explain the allusion entailed in “the ‘I have a dream’ we keep dreaming”?
  • Identify lines in the poem that reflect the occasion for which the poem was written. How do the lines you have chosen suggest issues surrounding the inauguration of a president?

Head to the Times to continue reading Jago’s lesson plan. 

“One Today”

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.

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