"On the Pulse of Morning" is a poem by writer and poet Maya Angelou
that she read at the first inauguration of President
Bill Clinton on
January 20, 1993. With her public recitation, Angelou became the
second poet in history to read a poem at a presidential inauguration,
and the first African American and woman. (
Robert Frost was the first
inaugural poet, at the 1961 inauguration of John F. Kennedy.)
Angelou's audio recording of the poem won the 1994
Grammy Award in the
"Best Spoken Word" category, resulting in more fame and recognition
for her previous works, and broadening her appeal.
The poem's themes are change, inclusion, responsibility, and role of
both the President and the citizenry in establishing economic
security. Its symbols, references to contemporary issues, and
personification of nature has inspired critics to compare "On the
Pulse of Morning" with Frost's inaugural poem and with Clinton's
inaugural address. It has been called Angelou's "autobiographical
poem", and has received mixed reviews. The popular press praised
Clinton's choice of Angelou as inaugural poet, and her
"representiveness" of the American people and its president. Critic
Mary Jane Lupton said that "Angelou's ultimate greatness will be
attributed" to the poem, and that Angelou's "theatrical" performance
of it, using skills she learned as an actor and speaker, marked a
return to the African-American oral tradition of speakers such as
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Poetry
critics, despite praising Angelou's recitation and performance, gave
mostly negative reviews of the poem.
3 Critical response and impact
4 See also
6 External links
When Angelou wrote and recited "On the Pulse of Morning", she was
already well known as a writer and poet. She had written five of the
seven of her series of autobiographies, including the first and most
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). Although she
was best known for her autobiographies, she was primarily known as a
poet rather than an autobiographer. Early in her writing career she
began alternating the publication of an autobiography and a volume of
poetry. Her first volume of poetry Just Give Me a Cool Drink of
Water 'Fore I Diiie, published in 1971 shortly after Caged Bird,
became a best-seller and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. As
scholar Marcia Ann Gillespie writes, Angelou had "fallen in love with
poetry" during her early childhood in Stamps, Arkansas. After her
rape at the age of eight, which she depicted in Caged Bird, Angelou
memorized and studied great works of literature, including poetry.
According to Caged Bird, her friend Mrs. Flowers encouraged her to
recite them, which helped bring her out of her self-imposed period of
muteness caused by her trauma.
Bill Clinton (with
Chelsea Clinton and Hillary Clinton),
taking the oath of office during his inauguration in 1993
Angelou was the first poet to read an inaugural poem since Robert
Frost read his poem "The Gift Outright" at President John F. Kennedy's
inauguration in 1961, and the first Black woman.[a] When it was
announced that Angelou would read one of her poems at Clinton's
inauguration, many in the popular press compared her role as inaugural
poet with that of Frost's, especially what critic Zofia Burr called
their "representativeness", or their ability to speak for and to the
American people. The press also pointed to the nation's social
progress that a Black woman would "stand in the place of a white man"
at his inauguration, and praised Angelou's involvement as the Clinton
administration's "gesture of inclusion".
Angelou told her friend
Oprah Winfrey that the call requesting her to
write and recite the poem came from television producer Harry
Thomason, who organized the inauguration, shortly after Clinton's
election. Even though she suspected that Clinton made the request
because "he understood that I am the kind of person who really does
bring people together", Angelou admitted feeling overwhelmed, and
even requested that the audiences attending her speaking engagements
pray for her.
She followed her same "writing ritual" that she had followed for
years and used in writing all of her books and poetry: she rented a
hotel room, closeted herself there from the early morning to the
afternoon, and wrote on legal pads. After deciding upon the
theme "America", she wrote down everything she could think of about
the country, which she then "pushed and squeezed into a poetic
form". Angelou recited the poem on January 20, 1993.
"On the Pulse of Morning" shared many of the themes in President
Clinton's inaugural address, which he gave immediately before Angelou
read her poem, including change, responsibility, and the President's
and the citizenry's role in establishing economic security. The
symbols in Angelou's poem (the tree, the river, and the morning, for
example) paralleled many of the same symbols Clinton used in his
speech, and helped to enhance and expand Clinton's images.
Clinton's address and the poem, according to Hagen, both emphasized
unity despite the diversity of American culture. "On the Pulse of
Morning" attempted to convey many of the goals of Clinton's new
..."On the Pulse of Morning" is an autobiographical poem, one that
emerges from her conflicts as an American; her experiences as
traveler; her achievements in public speaking and acting; and her
wisdom, gleaned from years of self-exploration".
African-American literature scholar Mary Jane Lupton
Burr compared Angelou's poem with Frost's, something she claimed the
poetry critics who gave "On the Pulse of Morning" negative reviews did
not do. Angelou "rewrote" Frost's poem, from the perspective of
personified nature that appeared in both poems. Frost praised American
colonization, but Angelou attacked it. The cost of the creation of
America was abstract and ambiguous in Frost's poem, but the
personified Tree in Angelou's poem signified the cultures in America
that paid a significant cost to create it. Both Frost and Angelou
called for a "break with the past", but Frost wanted to relive it
and Angelou wanted to confront its mistakes. Burr also compared
Angelou's poem with Audre Lorde's poem "For Each of You", which has
similar themes of looking towards the future, as well as with Walt
Whitman's "Song of Myself" and Langston Hughes' "The Negro Speaks of
Rivers". According to Hagen, the poem contains a recurring theme
in many of Angelou's other poems and autobiographies, that "we are
more alike than unalike".
"On the Pulse of Morning" was full of contemporary references,
including toxic waste and pollution. Angelou's poem was influenced by
the African-American oral tradition of spirituals, by poets such as
James Weldon Johnson
James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, and by modern African poets
and folk artists such as
Kwesi Brew and Efua Sutherland, which also
influenced her autobiographies.
Critical response and impact
According to Lupton, "On the Pulse of Morning" is Angelou's most
famous poem. Lupton has argued that "Angelou's ultimate greatness will
be attributed" to the poem, and that Angelou's "theatrical"
performance of it, using skills she learned as an actor and speaker,
marked a return to the African-American oral tradition of speakers
such as Frederick Douglass,
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
Kate Kellaway compared Angelou's appearance as she
read the poem at Clinton's inauguration with the eight-year-old child
in Caged Bird, noting that the coats she wore in both occasions were
similar: "She looked magnificent, sternly theatrical with an unsmiling
bow mouth. She wore a coat with brass buttons, a strange reminder of
Maya Angelou who stood in a courtroom, terrified at
the sight of the man who had raped her". Gillespie stated
regarding Kellaway's observations: "But standing tall on the steps of
the Capitol, she was light-years removed from that terrible time, and
America was no longer an 'unfriendly place.' Her poem 'On the Pulse of
Morning' was a soaring call for peace, justice, and harmony. Capturing
the hope embodied in the human spirit, it was a solemn and joyful
reminder that all things are possible. She wished us 'Good morning' in
her poem, and one felt as if a new day was truly dawning."
Angelou recognized that although "On the Pulse of Morning" was a
better "public poem" than a great poem, her goal of conveying the
message of unity was accomplished. Poet
David Lehman agreed, stating
that although it fulfilled its theatrical and political objectives,
the poem was "not very memorable". Poet
Sterling D. Plumpp found
Angelou's performance "brilliant", but was "not as enthusiastic about
it as a text". Burr stated that the negative reviews of Angelou's
poem, like the majority of the reviews about her other poetry, was due
to their elitism and narrow views of poetry, which were limited to
written forms rather than spoken ones like "On the Pulse of Morning",
which was written to recite aloud and perform. Burr compared the
response of literary critics to Angelou's poem with critics of Frost's
poem: "Frost's powerful reading served to supplement the poem in the
sense of enhancing it, while Angelou's powerful reading of her poem
supplemented it in the sense of making evident its inadequacy and
Angelou's recitation of "On the Pulse of Morning" resulted in more
fame and recognition for her previous works, and broadened her appeal
"across racial, economic, and educational boundaries". The week
after Angelou's recitation, sales of the paperback version of her
books and poetry rose by 300–600 percent.
Bantam Books had to
reprint 400,000 copies of all her books to keep up with the demand.
Random House, which published Angelou's hardcover books and published
the poem later that year, reported that they sold more of her books in
January 1993 than they did in all of 1992, accounting for a 1200
percent increase. The sixteen-page publication of the poem became
a best-seller, and the recording of the poem was awarded a Grammy
Poems at United States presidential inaugurations
^ The second Black woman, Elizabeth Alexander, recited her poem
"Praise Song for the Day" at President Barack Obama's inauguration in
^ a b c Lupton, p. 18.
^ a b c d e Lupton, p. 17.
^ Hagen, p. 118.
^ Gillespie et al., p. 103.
^ Gillespie et al., p. 101.
^ Angelou, Maya (1969). I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York:
Random House, p. 98. ISBN 978-0-375-50789-2
^ Katharine Q. Seelye (2008-12-21). "Poet Chosen for Inauguration Is
Aiming for a Work That Transcends the Moment". The New York Times.
^ Burr, p. 187.
^ a b Manegold, Catherine S. (1993-01-20). "An Afternoon with Maya
Angelou; A Wordsmith at Her Inaugural Anvil". The New York Times.
^ Lupton, p. 15.
^ Sarler, Carol (1989). "A Day in the Life of Maya Angelou". In
Jeffrey M. Elliot. Conversations with Maya Angelou. Jackson,
Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, p. 97.
^ a b c d e Hagen, p. 134.
^ Pisko, p. 35.
^ Pisko, p. 41.
^ Burr, pp. 190–191.
^ a b Burr, p. 191.
^ Burr, p. 192.
^ Kellaway, Kate (1993-01-24). "Poet for the New America", The
Observer. Quoted in Gillespie et al., p. 38.
^ Gillespie et al., p. 38.
^ Streitfeld, David (1993-01-21). "The Power and the Puzzle of the
Poem", The Washington Post, p. D11. Quoted in Burr, p. 187.
^ Schmich, Mary (1993-01-22). "Maybe Poetry Has a Chance after All",
Chicago Tribune, p. 2C-1. Quoted in Burr, p. 188.
^ Burr, p. 182.
^ Burr, p. 189.
^ Berkman, Meredith (1993-02-26). "Everybody's All American".
Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 2012-10-26.
^ Brozan, Nadine. (1993-01-30). "Chronicle". The New York Times.
^ Colford, Paul D. (1993-10-28). "Angelou Journeys Onto the Bestseller
List". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2013-03-12
^ Gillespie et al., p. 142.
Burr, Zofia (2002). Of Women, Poetry, and Power: Strategies of Address
in Dickinson, Miles, Brooks, Lorde, and Angelou. Urbana, Illinois:
University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0-252-02769-7
Gillespie, Marcia Ann, Rosa Johnson Butler, and Richard A. Long
(2008). Maya Angelou: A Glorious Celebration. New York: Random House.
Hagen, Lyman B. (1997). Heart of a Woman, Mind of a Writer, and Soul
of a Poet: A Critical Analysis of the Writings of Maya Angelou.
Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America.
Lupton, Mary Jane (1998). Maya Angelou: A Critical Companion.
Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. ISBN 978-0-313-30325-8
Pisko-Freund, Lois (1994-03-01). "Poetry and Motion: Comparing
Angelou's Poetry and Clinton's Inaugural Theme of Change". Florida
Communication Journal (Florida Communication Association) 22 (1):
Transcript of the poem, via archive.org's archive of the USEmbassy.gov
Video of the 1993 recitation of the poem on YouTube
Works by Maya Angelou
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Gather Together in My Name
Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas
The Heart of a Woman
All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes
A Song Flung Up to Heaven
Mom & Me & Mom
Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie
Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well
And Still I Rise
Shaker, Why Don't You Sing?
Now Sheba Sings the Song
I Shall Not Be Moved
"On the Pulse of Morning"
The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou
Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women
"A Brave and Startling Truth"
Celebrations, Rituals of Peace and Prayer
Mother: A Cradle to Hold Me
"We Had Him"
Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now
Even the Stars Look Lonesome
Letter to My Daughter
Hallelujah! The Welcome Table
Great Food, All Day Long
Georgia, Georgia (1972)
Sister, Sister (1982)
Down in the Delta
Down in the Delta (1998)
Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album
Stan Freberg – The Best of the
Stan Freberg Shows (1959)
Carl Sandburg –
Lincoln Portrait (1960)
Robert Bialek (producer) – FDR Speaks (1961)
Leonard Bernstein – Humor in Music (1962)
Charles Laughton – The Story-Teller: A Session With Charles Laughton
Edward Albee (playwright) –
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1964)
That Was the Week That Was
That Was the Week That Was – BBC Tribute to
John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy (1965)
Goddard Lieberson (producer) –
John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy - As We Remember Him
Edward R. Murrow
Edward R. Murrow –
Edward R. Murrow
Edward R. Murrow - A Reporter Remembers, Vol. I
The War Years (1967)
Everett Dirksen – Gallant Men (1968)
Rod McKuen – Lonesome Cities (1969)
Art Linkletter &
Diane Linkletter – We Love You Call Collect
Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. – Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam (1971)
Les Crane – Desiderata (1972)
Bruce Botnick (producer) – Lenny performed by the original Broadway
Richard Harris –
Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1974)
Peter Cook and
Dudley Moore – Good Evening (1975)
James Whitmore –
Give 'em Hell, Harry!
Give 'em Hell, Harry! (1976)
Henry Fonda, Helen Hayes,
James Earl Jones
James Earl Jones and
Orson Welles - Great
American Documents (1977)
Julie Harris –
The Belle of Amherst
The Belle of Amherst (1978)
Orson Welles –
Citizen Kane Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
John Gielgud – Ages of Man - Readings From
Pat Carroll – Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein,
Gertrude Stein (1981)
Orson Welles –
Donovan's Brain (1982)
Tom Voegeli (producer) –
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Raiders of the Lost Ark - The Movie on
Record performed by Various Artists (1983)
William Warfield –
Lincoln Portrait (1984)
Ben Kingsley – The Words of Gandhi (1985)
Mike Berniker (producer) & the original Broadway cast – Ma
Rainey's Black Bottom (1986)
Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chips Moman, Ricky Nelson, Roy Orbison,
Carl Perkins and
Sam Phillips – Interviews From the Class of '55
Recording Sessions (1987)
Garrison Keillor –
Lake Wobegon Days (1988)
Jesse Jackson – Speech by Rev.
Jesse Jackson (1989)
Gilda Radner – It's Always Something (1990)
George Burns – Gracie: A Love Story (1991)
Ken Burns – The Civil War (1992)
Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Robert O'Keefe – What You Can Do to Avoid
Maya Angelou –
On the Pulse of Morning
On the Pulse of Morning (1994)
Henry Rollins – Get in the Van (1995)
Maya Angelou –
Phenomenal Woman (1996)
Hillary Clinton –
It Takes a Village (1997)
Charles Kuralt – Charles Kuralt's Spring (1998)
Christopher Reeve –
Still Me (1999)
LeVar Burton – The Autobiography of
Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. (2000)
Sidney Poitier, Rick Harris & John Runnette (producers) – The
Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography (2001)
Quincy Jones, Jeffrey S. Thomas, Steven Strassman (engineers) and
Elisa Shokoff (producer) – Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones
Maya Angelou and Charles B. Potter (producer) – A Song Flung Up to
Heaven / Robin Williams, Nathaniel Kunkel (engineer/mixer) and Peter
Asher (producer) – Live 2002 (2003)
Al Franken and Paul Ruben (producer) – Lies and the Lying Liars Who
Tell Them (2004)
Bill Clinton – My Life (2005)
Barack Obama –
Dreams from My Father
Dreams from My Father (2006)
Jimmy Carter – Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis / Ossie
Ruby Dee - With Ossie and Ruby (2007)
Barack Obama and Jacob Bronstein (producer) – The Audacity of Hope
Cynthia Nixon and
Blair Underwood – An Inconvenient
Al Gore (2009)
Michael J. Fox
Michael J. Fox – Always Looking Up (2010)
Jon Stewart – The Daily Show with
Jon Stewart Presents Earth (The
Betty White – If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won't) (2012)
Janis Ian – Society's Child (2013)
Stephen Colbert – America Again: Re-becoming The Greatness We Never
Joan Rivers – Diary of a Mad Diva (2015)
Jimmy Carter – A Full Life: Reflections at 90 (2016)
Carol Burnett – In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter,
Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox (2017)
Carrie Fisher – The Princess Di