In 1993, when Bill Clinton decided to invite a poet to read at his first inauguration ceremony – for the first time since John F. Kennedy invited Robert Frost in 1961 – he chose fellow Arkansas native Maya Angelou to write a poem celebrating the new beginning of his first presidency. The panoramic piece that Angelou composed, “On the Pulse of Morning,” reached millions of television viewers. Its popularity proved so great that it was published as a cassette and chapbook in 1993(Anderson 4). The work was distributed to schools, libraries, cultural centers, and bookstores nationwide (Shiflet 8).
Appropriate for what Clinton promised would be a new era in American history, “On the Pulse of Morning” is a radiant piece that offers hope for the future by using good points of the past (Bloom 34). Angelou writes the poem using three objects of nature, “A Rock, A River, A Tree (Angelou 1), from which point she searches the distant past to provide answers for the present as well as advice for America’s future. Drawing different races, cultures, and religions together, the poem invites all of humankind to return to the foundations that made the country great, including basic values and an appreciation of nature (Bloom 40). Angelou calls upon ancient voices in hopes that “Each new hour holds new chances/for a new beginning (Angelou 5).” Maya Angelou’s works, specifically this poem, is complex in its themes, style, historical context, and its critical overview.
The first theme in this poem is knowledge and ignorance. Written in the personae of nature as a teacher, “On the Pulse of Morning” offers a clear message of how America should prepare for the future. Beginning as early as the second stanza, the Rock offers an invitation to stand upon its back to face a distant destiny (Anderson 16). This intensified outlook offers a clear vision of what is on the horizon, a theme that repeats throughout the poem in lines such as “lift your faces,” “lift up your eyes”, “look up and out upon me” and “look up and out/And into your sister’s eyes (Angelou 5)”. The metaphor of lifting one’s eyes to the light is deeply rooted in religious and philosophical literature (Anderson 18). One of the most famous pieces is Greek philosopher Plato’s theory that describes man as a being living in a cave, isolated and trapped in his ignorance (Cudjoe 21). The only knowledge that reaches him is the coin of light from a distant entrance, hardly enough to illuminate any writings on the cave walls (Cudjoe 22). For man to become truly “enlightened,” Plato suggests, he must move toward light and out into the brighter world of knowledge (Cudjoe 24). Angelou suggests a similar metaphor when the Rock warns “but seek no haven in my shadow, /I will give you no hiding place down there (Angelou 1)”. In some cases “ignorance is bliss (Angelou 3),” a haven where it is easier to ignore actions than take the responsibility and burden that comes with knowledge. And the speaker makes the ignorance clear: America’s near past plays host to such issues as racism, genocide, world war, slavery, environmental destruction, and prejudice (Anderson 22). Americans have “Crouched too long in/the bruising darkness/…Facedown in ignorance (Angelou 1). The key to “a bright new morning,” Angelou proclaims, is to step out of our dark past and lift our faces, hearts, and eyes toward the light (Anderson 23).
Another common theme in many of Angelou’s poems, prose, plays, and television documentaries is the value of pride even in the most desperate of situations. According to Angelou, a sense of pride is what sustains people when they are enslaved, harassed, humiliated, and degraded (Anderson 25). “Rather than show personal defeat in the face of depression”, Angelou states, “people should lift their faces and walk proud, for someday they will be rewarded for their hardships” (Anderson 26). Angelou’s ancestors (as well as many other
Americans’) were those who were “sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare/Praying for a dream (Angelou 4). Growing up in a segregated, racist South where whole white communities once gathered outside elementary schools to scream racial slurs at black children, Angelou learned the value of personal strength in seemingly hopeless times (Cudjoe 23). “History, despite its wrenching pain,” Angelou suggests,” cannot be unlived, but if faced/with courage, need not to be lived again (Angelou 4).” This courage and pride may carry people through difficult times, but they must also “free ourselves from mental slavery (Angelou 3)” as well. As the poem comes to an end, the speaker warns, “Do not be wedded forever/To fear, yoked eternally/To brutishness (Angelou 5).” By standing proud in the face of history’s wrenching pain and freeing oneself from the bonds of anger and ignorance, Americans can “look up and out (Angelou 5)” toward “the pulse of this new day (Angelou 5).
When Angelou accepted the offer to commemorate the inauguration of Bill Clinton into the presidency, she was faced with an important task: write a poem that offers the American people hope, while being honest about this country’s violent and cruel history (Bloom 34). Perhaps deflecting some of this burden by creating a personae speaker to convey the positive and negative messages, Angelou balances the two by using the violent past to offer a lesson for the future (Bloom 35). Some say humans are an inherently creature, “mouth spilling words/Armed for slaughter (Angelou 2)” from the very beginning. “Each of you” the River accuses, “[is] a bordered country, /Delicate and strangely make proud, /Yet thrusting perpetually under siege (Angelou 2).” Is America made proud by its “armed struggles for profit (Angelou 3),” claiming glorious victory after the Gulf War? The picture the poem begins with is fairly grim: America’s forefathers forcing the native people from their land and families to wander on bloody feet; kidnapping cramped boatloads of Africans from across the ocean to become sub-human slaves; even today the environment is embattled, the oceans and rivers clogged with “collars of waste” and “currents of debris (Angelou 2).” The image of a person “yoked eternally/To brutishness (Angelou 5)” calls to mind an animal enslaved by a heavy harness of cruelty (Bloom 40). These are the bonds and “wrenching history,” the speaker reminds the reader of so that they may overcome the past. Emphasizing that personal cruelty – prejudice – is the most damaging, Angelou gathers a diverse crowd to stand before the tree of wisdom, Jew next to Arab, homosexual next to Catholic priest, brother and sister, all equal in the pulse they share (Bloom 41): “No less to Midas than the mendicant, /No less to you now than the mastodon then (Angelou 5).”
“On the Pulse of Morning” is written in free verse, which means its form grows from the changing moods and urgency of its subject matter rather than from a set pattern of “traditional” poetic rules (Shiflet 15). Angelou has divided the poem into five sections, each constructed of stanzas of varying length (Shiflet 17). Few lines extend beyond ten words, which perhaps asks the reader to slow down, pausing often to digest the images before the beginning of the next line (Shiflet 18). Whereas long lines tend to build momentum like a train going downhill, shorter lines break up a poet’s images into smaller chunks. The rhythm and sound of these shorter lines are slower; they don’t feel choppy or silted (Shiflet 19-20).
The word “stanza” directly translated from Italian, means “room,” so it’s useful to think of each stanza as a place the poet collects her thoughts, a place to explore and move through (Neubauer 24). Angelou varies her stanza length greatly in the poem, from one to ten lines, depending on the subject matter she needs to contain. The shorter the stanza, the more emphasis each line has to carry, framed by so much space. These stanzas, grouped into distinct sections, give larger framework to the long poem (Neubauer 29). Acting as if the poem were a musical piece composed of many styles, Angelou weaves these individual sections into a fluid whole. This technique lends itself to recitation; the poem gains power as it is read aloud, the rhythms and sounds conveying meaning as much as the words themselves (Shiflet 31).
One of the distinct features of “On the Pulse of Morning” is the extent to which it is firmly rooted in its historical context. Angelou’s reading during Clinton’s 1993 inauguration reached a worldwide television audience, followed shortly after by the poem’s individual paperback, cassette, and videotape publication (Bloom 62). For many months “On the Pulse of Morning” seemed to be everywhere – shopping mall book stores, high school classrooms, coffee tables – even in grocery store checkout lines (Bloom 65). The poem became inextricably bound with Clinton’s ascendancy, with a “new” era in American politics (Bloom 66). Clinton was the first Democrat elected to the presidency in twelve years. Many saw his term in office as a chance for a fresh beginning; an opportunity to undo the snarled mess that American politics had become; these feelings and values were personified in the imagery of Angelou’s poem (Bloom 70).
The early 1990s proved to be the beginning of the budget cutting that would whittle the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) down to a fraction of it potency (Bloom 72). Many Republicans, responding to pressure from the Christian Coalition, argued to abolish the agency, citing its valueless “funding of pornography”(a charge that stemmed largely from a collection of photographs by Robert Maplethorpe featuring nude men). The NEA underwrites the work of emerging artists and writers so they may pursue their craft and teach others. When Republicans learned that some of these artists were producing work that dealt with social issues in a raw and graphic manner, they attacked the endowment for funding indecency and “anti-family” values (Bloom 74). Clinton, a Democrat, platformed his campaign on the value of education and the diverse arts, pledging to protect the NEA’s budget if he were elected (Cudjoe 83). For some, his invitation to Angelou seemed exemplary of his dedication to the arts; to others, it was an associative political maneuver that stood hollow of sentiment (Cudjoe 86).
“On the Pulse of Morning,” with its diverse celebratory tone and hopeful message, was written as an address to a nation living in the last decade of the twentieth century (Shiflet 101). Any time an artist is invited to create an “occasion” piece, the theme of day drives the poem’s course. Angelou knew this as she wrong the poem, and perhaps responded to current news of wars and racism in between its lines (Cudjoe 90). The world was in a violent and changing time, coalition forces having recently liberated Kuwait during the Gulf War. On television American planes were shooting down the stray Iraqi jets that crossed into the “no fly zone.” Israeli helicopter gunships assassinated Hisballa leaders in Southern Lebanon. An April 29th acquittal of Los Angeles, California, policemen involved in the Rodney King beating triggered the worst race driven violence and looting in U.S. urban history, killing fifty and injuring some two thousand others. In Germany neo-Nazi skinheads attacked gypsies and Turkish working-class families (Cudjoe 99).
In 1992, America’s population topped 250 million. The national debt exceeded 3 trillion dollars. The county seemed to be “thrusting perpetually under siege (Angelou 2),” itself only months removed from an international war to protect the world’s oil supply (Cudjoe 101). Angelou had a huge task at hand. Warning against another “armed struggle for profit (Angelou 2),” she addressed the nation with hope that the country would “study war no more (Angelou 5),” choosing instead to lift their collective faces, hearts, and eyes toward the first pulse of light breaking over the horizon (Cudjoe 103).
The critical analysis of “On the Pulse of Morning is incomplete. Because “On the Pulse of Morning” is a poem written specifically to celebrate Clinton’s 1993 inauguration, it entered the public’s awareness having virtually bypassed the normal gauntlet of criticism that follows most poetry publications (Hagen 4).
Broadcast on international television shortly before chapbook copies were distributed to bookstores, not many critics have come forward to offer specific commentary (Hagen 6). Moreover, by debuting the poem in front of an audience of millions, who embraced the poem’s artistry, Angelou preempted the critics’ opportunity to influence potential readers before they had a chance to hear or read the work (Hagen 7). After millions had praised the poem, many critics reasoned that it might seem petty to criticize such optimism in the force of such vast public approval (Hagen 9).
Perhaps Angelou’s reputation preceded her, guaranteeing the poem’s effectiveness; she is the author of over thirteen novels, autobiographies, and poetry collections (Shiflet 113). For many she is considered one of the most powerful voices of contemporary literature (Hagen 11). Some critics point to her varied careers in the arts to emphasize her driving spirit (Hagen 12). Bloom noted that Angelou “is forever impelled by the restlessness for change and new realms to conquer.” This hunger for change is common in much of Angelou’s work, along with as Gloria Hull stated in Belles Letters, the theme of “human oneness in diversity, the strength of blacks in the face of racism and adversity.”
“On the Pulse of Morning” has many themes, a unique style, and an interesting historical context. Maya Angelou has her own way of writing. Her work is unlike everyone elses. She words her poems differently and each of her writings has a specific meaning to them. Some people may think that Maya Angelou is one of the best African American writers to ever be born (Bloom 198).
Janofsky, Michael. “The Media Business:Hope, not despair.” The New York Times.
Mickey, Nelly. “Maya Angelo.” Word Book. ed. 2000.
Shift, Cord. “Biography.” Maenad. May 1997. University of Texas. 17 Jan. 2000.