Recently, the New York Times columnist David Brooks travelled to Cuba with the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. He wrote about his impressions of Cuban culture and the people’s love for poetry in an April 22, 2016, piece, “José Martí, the National Poet.”
Having visited Cuba recently to read an original poem of mine at the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana, and being of Cuban heritage, I can attest to the cultural pride of the Cuban people that Brooks describes. And it’s true that José Martí’s poems are an important part of the Cuban cultural narrative. Flashing back to my first trip to Cuba in 1994, when I tell my cousins that I’m a poet, they bring out a guitar, hand me a bottle of rum, and ask me to “sing with them.” They begin strumming and singing to the stars in Spanish through impromptu décimas, a syllabic and rhymed poetic form. Most of them have only a high school education, and yet poetry pulses through them the way music does; what’s more, they can quote verses from their national poets, Martí among them, of course.
But while poetry has had less of a public or popular profile in the United States than in other countries like Cuba, our poets have also played an essential role in shaping our country’s understanding of itself. As the Presidential Inaugural PoetI’ve been blessed with the opportunity to share my love for poetry over the past few years at such unlikely venues as the Federal Reserve, engineering firms and conferences, law firms, the Mayo Clinic, Silicon Valley, the USDA, and advocacy groups of all kinds. I’ve met scores of people who’ve told me how they turn to poems regularly for insight and inspiration—how, for some, poetry plays a spiritual role that religion might play for others.
Recently we’ve seen how people have turned to the poetry of Langston Hughes in the wake of violence against people of color. His poems are among the most-read poems on Poets.org, one of the largest poetry websites. America would not be America without Langston Hughes and his call to “Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—.” We the people have clearly claimed Hughes as one of our national poets. And we have also claimed Emily Dickinson, who reminded us that hope is the thing that “never stops at all.” And Allen Ginsberg, who asked, “America when will we end the human war?” And Walt Whitman, who heard America singing. In the United States we have not one but many poets telling our story, and this work continues today. The number of poetry festivals, journals, organizations, and reading series across the country continues to grow each year. People are hungry for poetry, and our poets are busy.
But there is a disconnect. The vastness of poetry activity in our country is rarely covered by the media. And, poetry is taught less and less in our schools as the vital and relevant art form it is. That’s why I’ve wholeheartedly chosen to serve as Education Ambassador for the Academy of American Poets. In my role the past year, I’ve helped encourage educators to discover the relevance and power of poetry, and the importance of enabling young people to encounter poetry in schools. I’ve had the opportunity to work with social studies teachers who are interested in incorporating more poems into their lessons. This integration of art and civics should not be so rare. Our teachers should be encouraged to share poems and to draw on poetry as a resource. Our poets are citizen journalists, activists, heroes, the narrators of our democracy-in-progress. Students should have an opportunity to hear those stories and, like my Cuban cousins, learn to “sing” the poetry of our nation to the stars.
—Richard Blanco, Education Ambassador, Academy of American Poets