Sunday’s Poem 4/19/09

Maya Angelou – “On The Pulse Of Morning”

A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Mark the mastodon.
The dinosaur, who left dry tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.
I will give you no hiding place down here.
You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness,
Have lain too long
Face down in ignorance.
Your mouths spelling words
Armed for slaughter.
The rock cries out today, you may stand on me,
But do not hide your face.
Across the wall of the world,
A river sings a beautiful song,
Come rest here by my side.
Each of you a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.
Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.
Yet, today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more.
Come, clad in peace and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I
And the tree and stone were one.
Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your brow
And when you yet knew you still knew nothing.
The river sings and sings on.
There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing river and the wise rock.
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew,
The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek,
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the tree.
Today, the first and last of every tree
Speaks to humankind. Come to me, here beside the river.
Plant yourself beside me, here beside the river.
Each of you, descendant of some passed on
Traveller, has been paid for.
You, who gave me my first name,
You Pawnee, Apache and Seneca,
You Cherokee Nation, who rested with me,
Then forced on bloody feet,
Left me to the employment of other seekers–
Desperate for gain, starving for gold.
You, the Turk, the Swede, the German, the Scot…
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru,
Bought, sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream.
Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am the tree planted by the river,
Which will not be moved.
I, the rock, I the river, I the tree
I am yours–your passages have been paid.
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage,
Need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts.
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out upon me,
The rock, the river, the tree, your country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now than the mastodon then.
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes,
Into your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

Delivered January 19, 1993 at the Inauguration of President Bill Clinton

Commentary
Angelou’s poem provides, in many ways, a counterpoint to Baraka’s poem. As a black author, she is similarly concerned with social issues and atrocities. However, she speaks to the power of unity, peace, and redemption, rather than hatred and violence.

I have to say that this is not a poem that I really love. But I do find it interesting to ponder. I only became aware of it because Robert Pinsky expressed his disappointment in it when it was read at Clinton’s inauguration. He compared it to a poem by Czeslaw Milosz that dealt with similar themes – optimism about the human spirit – in a similarly abstract way. He judged Milosz’s poem to be superior, but didn’t explain why.

I think I will include that Milosz poem tomorrow. While I find that I like Milosz’s work more than Angelou’s, I’m not sure I can qualify the difference in quality between this and Milosz’s. This has a degree of sentimentality in it, but so does Milosz’s. It is abstract or generalized. Perhaps it is his concision. This poem doesn’t feel concise. But then, I don’t know if it should be. It’s somewhat epic in its tone, a profound sort of meditation/proclamation. It sounds more like a speech than a poem, though I wouldn’t say it is without its poetic moments, either.

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One Response to Sunday’s Poem 4/19/09

  1. Angele says:

    “On the Pulse of Morning” is a speech–a poem written for a specific, formal occasion, as leaders have commissioned poets to write and recite throughout a number of governments and civilizations.

    This is very much a speech/poem/ode of its time: U.S.A. circa 1993, as a Democratic president with the common touch and what seemed like fresh ideas was taking the reins of government. (Remember that some people referred to Clinton as “the first black president” before we had the first black president.)

    As such, it reads like a combination of gospel hymn, alternative history, and self-help manual, which may be why Robert Pinsky dislikes it:

    “…Mark the mastodon.
    The dinosaur, who left dry tokens
    Of their sojourn here
    On our planet floor,
    Any broad alarm of their of their hastening doom
    Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages…”
    ……………………

    “Give birth again
    To the dream.
    Women, children, men,
    Take it into the palms of your hands.
    Mold it into the shape of your most
    Private need. Sculpt it into
    The image of your most public self…”
    …………………………………
    “Lift up your hearts…
    Here, on the pulse of this fine day
    You may have the courage
    To look up and out upon me,
    The rock, the river, the tree, your country…”

    Note that I said it READS like a combination of gospel hymn & etc. When SPOKEN ALOUD by the august public figure who wrote it, it was moving and appropriate to the occasion–however lost or dated the hopes of the pulse of that morning in 1993 may seem today.

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