When PortTix at Merrill Auditorium in Portland, Maine, made the free tickets to hear Richard Blanco available, all 1,800 were “sold out” in a mere four hours. The free tickets were courtesy of the Quimby Family Foundation, PortTix, and Creative Portland, with a two-per-customer limit. Not since the days of Henry Longfellow have so many Maine people flocked to hear a poet read his poems. Of course much of the draw was due to two factors: Blanco read at President Obama’s second inauguration; and Blanco now lives in Bethel, Maine. No matter the reasons for the swell of intrest — the February 26, 2013 event was a huge coup for the world of poetry, and Blanco was a perfect ambassador for its behalf.
Blanco’s poems are accessible but artful, with sufficient nuance, craft and depth to satisfy both Ph.D. and proletariat. This is no mean feat, and part of the reason for Blanco’s popularity was immediately apparent when he commanded the stage. Charming, well-spoken, with a tinge of self-effacement, Blanco read his poems carefully, introducing them with colorful segues that were humorous and sincere. (His good nature extended to the book-signing line that followed the reading, where progress was slow because he wanted to talk to every person.) Before President Obama’s recent inauguration, Blanco was a relatively obscure poet not widely known beyond the poetry/literary world. In interviews he himself has expressed surprise at the outpouring of adulation befitting a rock star for. . . a poet.
And then of course, there is the poetry itself, which extends beyond the personal to the universal, which is why his “One Poem” inaugural poem is so deeply moving. “Who hasn’t felt like a stranger in their own hometown?” Blanco remarked during the reading. And, “despite not living a perfect life, we’re living it together.” He also noted that in the past he had thought his poetry was well received because of the subject matter, but had come to see it was truly a question of craft: “It’s not what you write about, but how you write about it.”
“Shaving,” which Blanco read at Merrill, is an example of a seemingly pedestrian task brought to rich philosophical life through this fine poet’s artistry:
I am not shaving, I’m writing about it.
And I conjure the most elaborate idea—
how my beard is a creation of silent labor
like ocean steam rising to form clouds,
or the bloom of spiderwebs each morning;
the discrete mystery of how whiskers grow,
like the drink roses take from the vase,
or the fall of fresh rain, becoming
a river, and then rain again, so silently.
I think of all these slow and silent forces
and how quietly my father’s life passed us by.
I think of those mornings, when I am shaving,
and remember him in a masquerade of foam, then,
as if it was his beard I took the blade to,
the memory of him in tiny snips of black whiskers
swirling in the drain—dead pieces of the self
from the face that never taught me how to shave.
His legacy of whiskers that grow like black seeds
sown over my cheek and chin, my own flesh.
I am not shaving, but I will tell you about the mornings
with a full beard and the blade in my hand,
when my eyes don’t recognize themselves
in a mirror echoed with a hundred faces
I have washed and shaved—it is in that split second,
when perhaps the roses drink and the clouds form,
when perhaps the spider spins and rain transforms,
that I most understand the invisibility of life
and the intensity of vanishing, like steam
at the slick edges of the mirror, without a trace.
From City of a Hundred Fires (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998)
My signed page from Directions to the Beach of the Dead (“For Annie, to a fellow Rilke fan”):