Maya Angelou’s death this month and the sight of her countless quotes reminds us of how much poetic insight into life she gave for future generations to learn from. Much like Shakespeare, you can extract just one mere line from her works and see more profound insight than most people place in an entire book. Strangely enough, one of her most famous works (“On the Pulse of Morning”) isn’t usually remembered line for line. Nevertheless, we still remember it abstractly and in a way Angelou said we should all best be remembered: In how we make someone feel.
The poem was arguably the most inspiring recitation ever given at an inaugural for a President. Bill Clinton knew it was one for the ages if you see the old clip of him warmly embracing Angelou after she recited it to millions of people. But how will it stand up in the future, and will it be a guidepost for other poets we’ll likely hear at future Presidential inaugurals?
Angelou’s work has obvious parallels to Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Gift Outright” that he read at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961. Many even thought it was somewhat of an answer to it in opposing some of the views that Frost put in his about America’s past. It was the metaphors of nature, though, that were more than obvious, with Angelou’s parallels having more of an emotional resonance considering her background and race.
With most Presidents wanting to emphasize the future, Angelou set a new precedent for setting the guide of keeping an eye on the past, though not dwelling on it. Her speech was one that told of striving toward the future, something we see emphasized with each ensuing President. The more troubles America has, the more future poets will perhaps see how emphasizing themes of the future resonant more compared to when Robert Frost told everyone to keep the past vivid.
At the same time, Angelou was using traditional structures of the past in her poem. It was based off of African-American spirituals, which sent the message that the best traditions from decades past should keep circulating through our art forms. The poem also attacked some of the things in the present that were disturbing the prospects of the future. Yes, it had a strong green message about pollution ruining our environment. Little did we know that the nature metaphors in the poem from 20 years ago would ring even louder now with scientists giving us warnings of a climate change precipice.
Unless we have a big business President again in the near future, you can count on future inaugural poems addressing the climate in different metaphorical ways. It may exceed the economy by that time, making Angelou’s poem even more of a reference tool for the likely lesser poets trying to make history.
Most of all, though, Angelou may be studied for something else in relation to her poem: Her actual recitation.
Studying Videos of Maya Angelou’s Presentation
Out of all to learn from “On the Pulse of Morning”, it’s how Angelou recited it that may get the most study in the future. She showed that a poem’s impact frequently improves when you have a dynamic speaker. You can see the difference when you just read her poem in comparison to how she spoke it. In fact, Angelou reciting all of her works out loud enhanced them tenfold from the impact they already had.
It’s hard to imagine a future poet picked to read a poem at a Presidential inauguration will ever be as dynamic of a speaker as Angelou was. Regardless, you can see someone studying the tape of her recitation to assimilate ideas on how to make a poem sound more dynamic based on cadence and nuanced emphasis on certain words. Even a future President may be able to learn from her speaking methods that had you absorbing every syllable.
With far too many Presidential speeches being 30-minute blather, Maya Angelou proved you can write a profuse amount of words and still make every word worth something rather than being filler for a smaller point.