Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem “One Today” is a wonderful example of the power of words to paint pictures, stir emotion, unite hearts, and make the ordinary extraordinary. It’s also incredibly filmic, with suggestions of close-ups, wide shots, high-angle views, and motion. If you read the poem, I think you will see what I mean. You might even want to pick up a camera and try taking pictures of some of the shots.
It reminded me of another poem, “Night Mail,” by W H Auden, which he wrote specifically for a remarkable documentary film by the same title, directed in 1936 by John Grierson (a pioneering Scottish documentary filmmaker). This is one of the films that inspired me to become a filmmaker. Recently watching a clip from the film reminded me of how exciting it was to see the film for the first time. I was a 19-year-old undergraduate beginning to realize that I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker. If you watch a short clip from the documentary at the link below, I think you will be amazed at how a poem recited in 1936 could sound so much like rap. One of my favorite lines is: “In the farm she passes no one wakes, But a jug in a bedroom gently shakes.” Hint: the “she” is not a girl or a woman.
I’ve pasted in the text from both W H Auden’s “Night Mail” and Richard Blanco’s “One Today” below.
“Night Mail” by W H Auden
This is the night mail crossing the Border, Bringing the cheque and the postal order, Letters for the rich, letters for the poor, The shop at the corner, the girl next door. Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb: The gradient’s against her, but she’s on time. Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder Shovelling white steam over her shoulder, Snorting noisily as she passes Silent miles of wind-bent grasses. Birds turn their heads as she approaches, Stare from bushes at her blank-faced coaches. Sheep-dogs cannot turn her course; They slumber on with paws across. In the farm she passes no one wakes, But a jug in a bedroom gently shakes.
Dawn freshens, Her climb is done. Down towards Glasgow she descends, Towards the steam tugs yelping down a glade of cranes Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen. All Scotland waits for her: In dark glens, beside pale-green lochs Men long for news.
Letters of thanks, letters from banks, Letters of joy from girl and boy, Receipted bills and invitations To inspect new stock or to visit relations, And applications for situations, And timid lovers’ declarations, And gossip, gossip from all the nations, News circumstantial, news financial, Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in, Letters with faces scrawled on the margin, Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts, Letters to Scotland from the South of France, Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands Written on paper of every hue, The pink, the violet, the white and the blue, The chatty, the catty, the boring, the adoring, The cold and official and the heart’s outpouring, Clever, stupid, short and long, The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.
Thousands are still asleep, Dreaming of terrifying monsters Or of friendly tea beside the band in Cranston’s or Crawford’s: Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh, Asleep in granite Aberdeen, They continue their dreams, But shall wake soon and hope for letters, And none will hear the postman’s knock Without a quickening of the heart, For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?
“One Today” by Richard Blanco
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.