The power of words

Jan 28, 2013
When poet Richard Blanco took the stage at President Obama’s inauguration last week, it was a momentous occasion. For one thing, Blanco is Latino and gay, not exactly a typical guest of honor at a presidential inauguration. Here was the immigrant son of working-class Cuban exiles, an openly gay man, celebrating a people united “under one sky,” while the second term of the nation’s first African-American President dawned. Would poet Langston Hughes even recognize the place? I think he might. In his 1935 poem, “Let America Be America Again,” Hughes wrote: America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath— America will be! Hughes, who died in 1967, encountered racial prejudice throughout his life. Yet he was lauded as one of the most important writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Blanco, by contrast, worked anonymously as a civil engineer while publishing three collections of poetry. “It’s no exaggeration to say that poets toil in obscurity,” writes Eric Sasson in a Wall Street Journal blog. “You can probably count the number of ‘household name’ living poets in the United States on one hand. (Perhaps just two fingers: Billy Collins and Maya Angelou.)” Why does America give so little attention to its poets? You could pose that question to your students as you explore this wonderful New York Times lesson, “Reading ‘One Today’ and Other Inaugural Poems.” It comes from Carol Jago, a distinguished English teacher, author, and editor. Jago’s lesson presents a great opportunity for middle and high school teachers implementing the Common Core to go beyond the sample texts in Appendix B with contemporary, relevant poetry. When reading the last lines of Blanco’s poem, challenge your students not just to learn to decode poetry—but also to write it: hope—a new constellation waiting for us to map it, waiting for us to name it—together. Why do the words of a poet—or a novelist or an essayist—matter? They have power. “You could see it in the faces of the people,” Sasson writes, “as the camera panned across them: Richard’s words were moving them. And this is why most of us write: to connect with others, to attempt, in however small or personal a way, to illuminate the human condition.” Image via Photo Phiend