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On the Pulse of Morning

By Maya Angelou

A textual and contextual reading in combination with Bill Clinton’s first inaugural address


Contents

1.   Introduction. 2

2.   Formal textual analysis 2

3.   Extra-textual analysis 4

4.   Introduction to the America of 1993. 5

5.   Analyzing the common themes and imagery. 5

6.   Conclusion. 8

7.   Bibliography. 9


1.  Introduction

The purpose of this paper is to offer a textual and contextual reading of Maya Angelou‘s poem “On the Pulse of Morning“ which was written for and performed at the inauguration of American President Bill Clinton on January 20, 1993. First I am going to offer a formal textual analysis in order to examine the poem as a text.

The main area this paper is going to cover is the historical context as well as the parallels with Bill Clinton‘s own inauguration speech. I want to look at the overall situation of the United States of America at that point in time in order to understand what could have driven Maya Angelou to write this poem for Clinton‘s inauguration. The shared themes between Angelou‘s poem and Clinton‘s speech both point towards a better future and help to illustrate each other‘s points.

By contrasting and comparing „On the Pulse of Morning“ with Bill Clinton‘s inaugural speech new insights can be gained on both the speech and the poem itself. The version of the poem I will be using is the one which is printed in Maya Angelou’s book “The complete collected poems of Maya Angelou”. In this version are some words and lines that are missing in her performance from 1993, but since these do not change the poem drastically I will not address them further.

2.  Formal textual analysis

Maya Angelou‘s poem was specifically created to be performed at the inauguration of Bill Clinton as the 42nd president of the United States of America. Angelou opted for a freeform poem without any obvious rhythm and performed it herself in front of thousands of people. Therefore I would recommend everyone who wants to take a closer look at the text to watch her performance at least once, as her unique style brings the poem, which lacks most formal features, to life. (cf.

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This persona can be seen most clearly in the first twelve lines. The narrator seems to be part of the same group of people that make up the „lyric thou“, as the line: “the Rock cries out to us,“ shows. Therefore it is his or her function to communicate between the other speakers and the fictive addressees, evidenced by the line „They all hear The speaking of the Tree.“. „They“ refers to the group of listeners, the „lyric thous“.


3.  Extra-textual analysis

In order to look at the extra-textual level of Maya Angelou‘s poem we have to put it into context. In this case a context is easily found, as it was performed in front of a huge live audience during the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton. Unlike most poems, On the Pulse of Morning seems to be designed to be some kind of “lecture“ or „speech“.

The „lyric thou“ is most likely the same as the real listener. Maya Angelou herself would take the position of the narrator. She uses her position in order to reach the audience with her message. This kind of communicative relationship coincides with the position Bill Clinton takes in his speech. Both communicate a message on how the public can help to make a better future.

They do this by referring to the lessons learned from the past and by imprinting the idea of change into the people’s consciousness. But Angelou‘s poem and Clinton‘s speech have even more in common than it seems on first sight.

The performance at Bill Clinton‘s first inauguration

As mentioned above, the poem was composed to be performed at Bill Clinton‘s first inauguration as president of the United States of America. Although she was only the second poet ever to be asked to perform for an inauguration, her performance and her poem were huge successes. Because of the high demand she created an audio-version, which won a Grammy Award for „Best Spoken word or N.....

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The then reigning president George W. Bush had lost most of his goodwill from the population because he broke his promise not to raise taxes. The economy was also on a downturn and combined with the low public approval of George Bush the American population yearned for a change. Bill Clinton‘s campaign emphasized his goal to make America into a better nation as well as his stance on the hot issues of healthcare and the economic downturn.

His victory over Bush marked an important point of change for the Democratic Party which only had one president in the past 24 years (cf. Online 1). And it was exactly this feeling of impending change that both Clinton and Angelou channeled into their texts.

When Clinton‘s speech and Angelou‘s poem are read side by side, many similarities can be found. The most overt ones are the common themes of change, work that has to be done, responsibilities, remembering the past and the possibility of a better future. These themes stretch trough both texts and even use some of the same imagery.

5.  Analyzing the common themes and imagery

Angelou starts her poem by introducing the rock, the river and the tree, which each stand for different aspects of America. The first one to be personified is the rock, which is a synecdoche and stands for the American continent. He invites the „lyric thou“ which most likely means the American people to build their lives upon him.

But he also warns that he will only be a place to stand on and not a shelter to hide from conflict.

Clinton uses very similar lines in his speech. He talks about how the Americans must „assume new responsibilities“(Online 2. Z. 14) “face hard truth and take strong steps“, “take fearsome challenges“, but also criticizes how the American people have “drifted“(Online 2. Z. 32-33 ) instead of going forward .

He wants his fellow citizens to know that they can count on America, but also reminds them of the future and the work that has to be done in orde.....

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All these different groups yearn for a peaceful coexistence and when the river tells them to „Plant you beside the River. Each of you, descendant of some passed On Traveller, has been paid far.“ (Angelou. Z. 57-58) it sheds light on the fact that America is nation founded by all kinds of immigrants.

Clinton does not explicitly mention this many minorities, but his speech still contains references to the way the U.S. was founded and how the different groups need to start helping each others. He talks about „increasing inequality and deep divisions among our people“(Online 2. Z. 17-18) and „reconnecting our torn communities“ (Online 2. Z. 94-95) .

He also mentions that „this beautiful capital, [ .] is often a place of intrigue and calculation. Powerful people maneuver for position [ .] forgetting those people whose toil and sweat sends us here and pays our way.“ (Online 2. Z. 0-63).

In her long list Angelou also explicitly mentions two groups that both have a rather difficult past: the Native Americans, who were forced to leave their land by the European settlers, and the Africans who were forced into slavery. But she also mentions that lessons can be learned from such dark periods of history: „History, despite its wrenching pain, Cannot be unlived, but if faced With courage, need not to be lived again.“ (Angelou.

Z.76-78). Angelou instructs the people to look up again and reclaim the dream that made the United States into what they are today. She emphasizes a possible new beginning and the need for change. She uses the image of a tree to suggest that the people should settle down peacefully and, like the tree in her poem, invite their fellow citizens to live together. The tree does exactly that, he is firmly planted into the land and tells the people to root themselves besides him.

Clinton does not cite any specific historical events in his speech, but the theme of changes and new beginnings is present throughout the whole speech. The most common image he uses is the image of winter changing into spring. This works not only on the temporal level -“This ceremony is held i.....

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7.     Bibliography

Angelou, Maya (1994/1994). “On the Pulse of Morning” [1993]. In: Maya Angelou. The complete collected poems of Maya Angelou. Ed. Maya Angelou. 1st ed. New York: Random House. 269

Egan, Jill (2009). Maya Angelou. A creative and courageous voice. Pleasantville, NY: Gareth Stevens Pub.

Nardo, Don (2009). Maya Angelou. Poet, performer, activist. Minneapolis, Minn: Compass Point Books.

Ryan, Halford (1993/1993). “President Bill Clinton’s Inaugural Address, 1993” In Halford Ryan. The inaugural addresses of twentieth-century American presidents. Ed. Ryan Halford. 1st ed. Westport, Conn: Praeger. 299


Webliography

Online 1

“Maya Angelou 1993 Bill Clinton Inauguration.” [Online] YouTube [16.10.2013]


Online 2

Clinton, Bill. (1992/January 21). ”We Force the Spring: Transcript of Address By President Clinton”. New York Times [Online] The New York Times Archive [16.10.13]

Online 3

 “United States presidential election, 1992.” [Online] Wikipedia [16.10.2013]


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