Sounds Familiar

The common ground between fine poetry and populist political rhetoric is small, and Maya Angelou has not found it

Last term, our sixth-form class studied the poetry of Maya Angelou, the most celebrated living African-American poet. For my AS-level coursework, I was set an essay on her poem “On the Pulse of Morning”, which was written for Bill Clinton’s Inauguration ceremony in 1993. The poem was not without its moments. For example, I liked these lines about the dinosaurs: “Any broad alarm of their hastening doom/ Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.” But after seeing a YouTube clip of Angelou reading the poem, I realised that it was written as rhetoric, not to have its rhythm and structure analysed by English teenagers who barely remember Clinton, let alone his Inauguration, which took place shortly after I was born.

One aspect of the poem irritated me. At one point Angelou began to list…”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.”

To me and some of my classmates, this passage was superfluous, to say the least. It seemed as though Angelou, having written a poem about Americans, specifically black Americans, and their relationship with the heritage of slavery, had clumsily tacked on the list in a mistaken attempt to make the poem “global”.

Anyway, fast-forward to another Inauguration, that of President Obama. Watching a CBS News interview with Angelou about Obama, I had a curious sense of déjà vu as the poet enthused: “We have elected a black man. We – blacks, whites, Asians, Spanish-speaking, Native-Americans – we have done it. Fat, thin, pretty, plain, gay, straight – we have done it.”

But despite Angelou’s rejoicing at Obama’s victory, old familial ties have not been entirely severed. This time last year, she was endorsing Hilary Clinton, who didn’t escape the list treatment either. Angelou described her in a campaign radio advertisement as “a daughter, a wife, a mother…my girl.”

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