Sean Hughes asks if it’s even possible to have an outstanding contemporary poem mark a president’s inauguration – and finds that current tastes in verse are a major obstacle:
[T]he audience for occasional poems — those composed for particular occasion — has collapsed. People have relatively set expectations about poetry, even if they don’t read it: I’ve met very few people who still think that poetry must rhyme, but most people expect poetry to have an aura of exceptionality, one way or another. If you’ve ever combed through submissions to a lit mag, or looked at what gets in, you’ll see that occasional poems are rare. People are generally inclined to think that a poem should be its own occasion and express whatever caused its composition.
This is a relatively recent consensus. Occasional poetry was standard for much of history, and it was common for newspapers to publish occasional poems into the early twentieth century. At the outset of World War One, for example, there were thousands of poems printed, and people must have known that few of these poems would be read in the future. There’s still topical poetry, but there isn’t really a general audience for versifying on current events.
In Blanco’s passage, his focus is on the hands that belong to individuals, hands that glean and dig and are worn. The hands are symbols for the Americans who go about their daily jobs. These depictions are isolated, individual dramas, such as the one Blanco mythologizes about his father’s hands and how his fathered wonderfully cared for his children. This is a singular, private, standard sort of contemporary American poetry of the self.
In the Whitman passage, everyone is singing individual songs. But, here’s the important fact, they are singing them together. That’s what Whitman hears when hears “America singing.” I mean, he doesn’t hear “Americans singing.” It’s e pluribus unum. That’s the essential difference Sullivan misses.