May 28, 2014

Maya Angelou, the poet who puzzlingly punctuated Bill Clinton's first auguration with references to dried dinosaur and mastodon shit...



... has passed.
She was 86.

Here's the full text of the poem, "On the Pulse of Morning,"" which begins: "A Rock, A River, A Tree/Hosts to species long since departed/Marked the mastodon/The dinosaur, who left dried tokens/Of their sojourn here/On our planet floor...." What that meant about Bill Clinton, we are left to interpret.

ADDED: I loved "I Know Why the Caged Bird Laughs."

AND: "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

75 comments:

Anonymous said...

...presidential selfie in 3..2..1..

Bob Ellison said...

Poetry is stupid.

Ann Althouse said...

And, yes, I know that Rush Limbaugh has imitated Angelou's reading of the first line many, many times. It's been very funny over the years. It's not so funny on the news of the death, so be gentle… or be cruel to Bill.

Angelou's first memoir "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" is a good book for young readers, if I remember it accurately.

broomhandle said...

Puzzlingly apt?

dbp said...

The problem with being over-rated is that some assume (wrongly) that you have no talent.

Her serious expression, deep voice and slow cadence give the impression of a sage. But if you look at the actual words, they alternate between goofy and middlebrow.

Michael K said...

I have carefully avoided her for years.

CStanley said...

Oh my...I have to leave it for Betamax or others to do it justice but the material is ripe for picking...."pulse", "thrusting", "take it into your hands" "mold it into your most private need."

Oy!

Christopher said...

Rest in peace.

I attended that inauguration, as part of the huddled masses. I was yearning to be free by the time that disaster of a poem was over.

Thorley Winston said...


Angelou's first memoir "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" is a good book for young readers, if I remember it accurately.

We had to read part of it in high school for our literature class.

It was terrible.


Ann Althouse said...

"We had to read part of it in high school for our literature class. It was terrible."

Whenever those 2 sentences are spoken together, any "it" that fits sentence 1, fits sentence 2.

The Crack Emcee said...

She was telling us we're nothing special.

And I'm glad someone who told me not to be stupid delivered it,...

Kelly said...

Schlock poetry. Oh, and RIP.

Michael said...

I am sure she was a nice person but she was not a great writer.

Michael said...

I am sure she was a nice person but she was not a great writer.

President-Mom-Jeans said...

I think the reference to dried dinosaur shit was a shout out to Hilary.

madAsHell said...

I have a friend from high school. He started hearing voices at about 19 years of age. Thankfully, we caught him, and found him help.

Today, he writes poetry, and lives on the dole.

Expat(ish) said...

She was inflicted on us in H/S as well, and it was terrible.

IIRC, my class did enjoy (or at least willingly tackle) "A separate peace," "The odyssey," "The rime of the ancient mariner," much of Shakespeare. Nobody liked Donne or his ilk, we rejected Chinua Achebe (though I loved Things in college), and allmost all non rhythmic poetry was horrifying.

Most of that stands up to Adult Me and my tastes.

_XC

EDH said...

As to the inaugural poem "Good Morning" ...

Ideologically and thematically trite, but I find the metaphorical imagery and delivery interesting.

I'm not qualified to grade poetic style, but it invited me to think deeply about what I agreed and disagreed with historically, I'll grant her that, which is a compliment to a poet I'm not on the same page ideologically.

Aside, was this a new work written for the inauguration? What's the protocol for new works: do inaugural poets submit them for approval or revision to make sure they are sufficiently anondyne?

Thorley Winston said...


IIRC, my class did enjoy (or at least willingly tackle) "A separate peace," "The odyssey," "The rime of the ancient mariner," much of Shakespeare.


We read some Shakespeare (I got to play Mark Antony which was a lot of fun) and our teacher allowed us to read The Illiad for extra credit (about a dozen of us did so to make sure we got the “A” for the class). I read The Odyssey on my own as well as The Anneid because I was intrigued by the Trojan War. The thing that I remember about reading The Illiad were the numerous passages which consisted of identifying who was killed in battle, where they were stabbed and who their father was.

Quaestor said...

She was inflicted on us in H/S as well, and it was terrible.

Whenever I was exposed to Angelou's poetry terrible didn't occur to me. Neither did trite, tedious, turgid, windy, incongruent or magniloquence.

What went through my mind was a question: How does one gain fame and fortune via such word-smithery? I had some theories. None involved poetry.

rhhardin said...

I'd go with Thylias Moss.

Blue@9 said...


M.A. had some decent stuff, but her fame far outran her abilities as a poet. Her stuff doesn't really grab me, but it must appeal to a good many people.

I have a friend from high school. He started hearing voices at about 19 years of age. Thankfully, we caught him, and found him help.

Today, he writes poetry, and lives on the dole.


This happens to a lot of poets--not necessarily the dole part, but in terms of hearing voices. In ancient times they would have taken the role of shamans. "Hearing voices" is probably not the most precise way to put it, but it's hard to describe with words. There's a reason artists talk about "the Muse"-- when it grabs you, it's apparent that you are merely a conduit for some other voice. You can call it the subconscious, or the god in you, spirits, etc., but it feels very real (and it is real as far as the mind can discern).

Quaestor said...

I wonder if it was Bill or Hill who invited Angelou to deliver a poetic coda at the 1993 Inauguration?

Well, no matter if one, the other, or some low-level hack, Angelou's verse turned out to be an oracle in the best Delphic style, a nonsensical pomposity which presaged the entire Clintonian Age of pompous nonsense.

Fernandinande said...

A Rock, the wise Rock, the Sheikh,
The out up you hear
The Rock, then.

Plant it into you
Pawnee, Apache and faces, you
Cherokee Native been paid.

I, the palms of the mastodon.

The Asian, the Swede, the Tree and the sing place you will give birth again
To fear, you still
Knew beginning.

The proud,
Yet thrusting darkness.

Before every simply
Very Tree, yourselves been pain,
Starving for a dream.

Women, children, men,
Take its wrenching.

Today I call of debris upon
My shadow.

I am the wall of you have crouched the courage, need. Sculpt it into
The Asian, the Rock, the Ashanti, the wall your mouths spilling forward,
Offering for.
++

It becomes a better, uh, poem, after being run thru a 4th order Eddington Monkey algorithm.

Fernandinande said...

Bob Ellison said...
Poetry is stupid.


That drivel certainly was, and in general "A poet more than thirty years old is simply an overgrown child." -- Mencken

paul a'barge said...

Maya Angelou was a hack.

Besides, it's all about Obama now. She should have got the message.

paul a'barge said...

@Althouse: so be gentle… or be cruel to Bill

In other words, be a girl.

CatherineM said...

Oprah is sad today. Maya was one of Oprah's spiritual leaders. They had slumber parties together to share their wisdom with the masses.

http://www.oprah.com/oprahshow/Lessons-from-Maya-Angelou-Video

This is what I think of when I think of Maya Angelou. "....or I am meeeeaaaan." Sorry Oprah!

Donald said...

Thank goodness we have the Althouse blog....the place where dittoheads can congregate to mock the recently departed.

Way to stay classy, Althouse readers.

Quaestor said...

Angelou's insights were occasionally deep, only her maladroit style tended to obscure the profundity.

Take for example Althouse's example, references to dried dinosaur and mastodon shit -- have truer word ever sealed such an occasion? A legate on the occasion of his triumph was accompanied by a slave whose task was to remind the conqueror of his mortality. Angelou's "shit" was her rather puerile stab at the slave's triumphal office, though she would have done better to skip the poesy and let fly with the starkly prosaic because the megalomaniacal buffoons had not an inkling of the warning being offered. Those desiccated Clintonian coprolites are with us still, and the sink is just as fresh.

David said...

For another view of Angelou's writing, read the essay "Now I Know Why The Caged Bird Can Not Read" by Francine Prose.

She was a poor writer but made a great choice of both topics and friends.

Clyde said...

One person's poetry is another person's dried dinosaur tokens. Maybe she can use them in the afterlife's celestial subway.

And yes, we can certainly expect her passing to be all about Barack Obama.

David said...

I am impressed, Crack, that Maya Angelou was your babysitter. I bet she was a good one, and she lived a good life. But in my book you are a much better writer than she was.

Sam L. said...

http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/i-know-why-the-caged-bird-sings/

I understand it's because of hemp seeds in the birdseed.

SomeoneHasToSayIt said...

A quote attributed to Ms Angelou goes like this:

"You can tell a lot about a person by how they handle these three things: (1)a rainy day,(2) lost luggage, and (3) tangled Christmas lights".

My guess as to how The Crack Emcee would handle them?

(1) White meteorologists seeded the clouds to wash out MLK day festivities.

(2) Lost on purpose, as they new I was traveling while Black

(3) Did you know Jesus was actually a Black man?

Mike said...

Met Ms. Angelou at Cal State University in the go-go '90s when taking time for a little poetry was a good idea, and my girlfriend wanted to see her. I liked Maya's odd cadences when she read aloud. However, I could not name a contemporary of hers, nor a modern equivalent (save for the West Coast's own Tarzana Joe, of course). This presidency, for all it's artist "friends," seems to be lacking in bringing cultural interludes to the public like Bill did. Unless you consider selfies a cultural phenomenon worthy of the Pres & First Lady.

William said...

I've never read her, but apparently she meant a lot to many people. Some of of her quoted lines were pretty good, but her speaking voice is a turn off. She spoke very slowly and clipped off each phrase as though she were uttering a profound truth that you should take with you to your grave. As noted, she had some good lines, but it is the nature of human beings that they do not go through life recognizing and enunciating profound truths. Your delivery should allow room for observations about aching feet.

Smilin' Jack said...

"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

That is so true. I heard her read a poem once, and I totally forget what she said, but I do remember feeling bored by it.

tim in vermont said...

I'm sorry for your loss, Crack.

grackle said...

Poetry is stupid.

My 2nd wife was very intelligent, graduated with honors from law school and had a very high reading comprehension. She easily understood the most intricate legal material; "It's complicated because it has to be precise," she once explained to me.

But she could not understand poetry. Metaphor was all but lost to her: "Why don't you just say what you mean," was how she put it. I didn't mind. But she did like the little love poems I wrote to her when we were dating. Never met a woman who didn't.

I would amend the above statement:

Most poetry is stupid.

Nichevo said...

Why dino scat? Why not fossils?

That said...I also seem to remember scatology in Nora Zeale Huston. Is it a black thing?

LarsPorsena said...

She had to have laughed up her sleeve at all the white academics who took her rambling seriously.

I couldn't help smirking every time I heard her read her work.

eddie willers said...

The most insightful poet since Rod McKuen.

Michael K said...

I was an English Literature major in college while I took pre-med as electives. I loved it and read a lot of good poetry. It ruined me for Maya Angelou. All politics and affirmative action.

madAsHell said...

From wikipedia..

At the age of eight, while living with her mother, Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother's boyfriend, a man named Freeman. She told her brother, who told the rest of their family. Freeman was found guilty but was jailed for only one day. Four days after his release, he was murdered, probably by Angelou's uncles.[

It's interesting to look at photos of prison populations from the 1930's and 40's. There are no black people.

Austin said...

Like most poets, Angelou was as useless as a headache. However, she wasn't bad playing Kunta Kunte's Grandmother in "Roots". Then again, "Roots" was little more than plagiarized fiction.

Anthony said...

I love old poetry (Wordsworth, Tennyson, etc., even Dickinson to some degree), but I never bothered with Angelou. Mainly because I don't read anything less than 100 years old anyway, but once she got all hyped by Oprah and the Left generally, I figured she was probably not nearly as talented as they said she was. I'm guessing were she white she never would have made much of a splash.

Thorley Winston said...

For another view of Angelou's writing, read the essay "Now I Know Why The Caged Bird Can Not Read" by Francine Prose.

Here’s a link to I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read.

MadisonMan said...

I read somewhere that Maya Angelou (who never went to College, but was awarded honorary doctorates) preferred to be called 'Doctor'.

That's the kind of pretentious nonsense that makes me roll my eyes and think much much less of the person.

Crack, it's really cool that she was your baby sitter. I ponder brushes with fame that I have had, and I come up with nothing.

Austin said...

Oh! How precious is the hope
when freedom is the prize
where struggle is the cost
and our lives are the price
Oh! Freedom!


Now I know at first, the reader may think it is bromidic garbage, and utterly unworthy of consideration. But looking deeper, can't everyone see the profound social commentary? Can't you see the imaginative and positivelt sublime use of allegory? And the symmetrical syntax? It's genius I tell you, and if you can't see it, you are unfit for your job.

Bobber Fleck said...

Being white and a math major, I have a question for the others on this blog: Is poetry supposed to mean something?

Quaestor said...

Why dino scat? Why not fossils? ...I also seem to remember scatology in Nora Zeale Huston.

There's scatology, and then there's eschatology. These things tend to get conflated in certain minds.

The most insightful poet since Rod McKuen.

Hallmark has this anonymous poet on staff who can give McKuen a run for his money.

I loved [English Literature] and read a lot of good poetry. It ruined me for Maya Angelou. All politics and affirmative action.

Robert Graves was the last poet worth the price of admission. Sadly the same cannot be said for today's published poets. On the whole one is poorer for having read them.

R.C. said...

How odd.

I misremembered the poem, apparently.

All these years, I thought it said:

"The dinosaur, who left dried tokens/Of his sojourn here/On blue fabric...."

H said...

Fernandinande: Thanks for the creative contribution. Can you give the rest of us a link or an explanation so we can continue to discover new Angelou's. (And what happens if we put, say, Kipling, to the same process?)

AReasonableMan said...

Michael K said...
I was an English Literature major in college while I took pre-med as electives. I loved it and read a lot of good poetry. It ruined me for Maya Angelou. All politics and affirmative action.



I doubt there is a more pompous dick on this planet.


virgil xenophon said...

"All politics and Affirmative Action."


THIS!!!^^^

rcocean said...

Yes, she's pretty mediocre - but then so were a lot of national laureates. Archibald MacLeish anyone?

Maybe some women or blacks will be inspired by her and go out and write some good poetry.

RIP.

Quaestor said...

I doubt there is a more pompous dick on this planet.

Who are you referring to ARM? I assume Bill Clinton, a dick on this planet, rather than Maya Angelou, a non-dick elsewhere.

Ann Althouse said...

What identifies the "tokens" as shit is the modifier "dried."

And the word "tokens" does seem racial.

Quaestor said...

And the word "tokens" does seem racial.

To some, evidently, but not to all.

Was Rosa Parks a bus token?

David said...

Some sources are saying that Angelou was Dan Francisco's first black street car conductor.

Now that is cool.

Thorley Winston said...

I read somewhere that Maya Angelou (who never went to College, but was awarded honorary doctorates) preferred to be called 'Doctor'.

That's the kind of pretentious nonsense that makes me roll my eyes and think much much less of the person.


Schools that give "honorary" doctorates to someone for merely showing up and giving a speech make me think much less of the value of their doctorates.

O/T but IMO the term "doctor" should be reserved for M.D.s and Gallifreyans travelling in blue boxes that are smaller on the outside.

Nichevo said...

Ann, I should think fossils are pretty dry.

Ann Althouse said...

"Ann, I should think fossils are pretty dry."

Yes, fossilized dried shit is dry. Good observation.

You're probably thinking of fossilized bone, but I think the word "dried" is the poet's sly invocation of shit.

We're reading poetry here and words matter. She didn't write "dry." She wrote "dried." And she wrote "left" and "tokens."

These words are all important. And, of course, the reference to shit is deniable (and hilarious).

George W. Potts said...

Bill Buckley said about this inaugural poem, "We were both at a loss for words."

The Crack Emcee said...

virgil xenophon,

"All politics, and a reminder of this country's horrible history, that most white American males would rather cut off their heads than admit to - much less settle - even when faced with centuries of overwhelming evidence of their cultural depravity."

Today it's colorblind racism - the attempt, by American whites, to deny the depraved culture they built and call everyone else crazy. Which - no surprise after 400 years of racist conditioning - is no break from that culture. THAT's what so whites, here, can't admit - but so many blacks can't ignore. Rejoice, racists:

Another of those troubling, LIVING, witnesses - whites, here, regularly denied existed to tell me the truth FIRST-HAND - are gone. You can now pursue your spinning with even greater vigor now - anything but the truth! Y'all were saying none were alive before - just as you said all the white racists were dead before Bundy, Sterling, etc. showed up - now whites can brand the black truth-tellers as all liars. And boring liars, too. Not good at all.

That's different from the past, isn't it? Whites slagging blacks? Day-in and day-out? Even the dead?

Looking at the history - 400 long years of it, most taken up by this type of white rhetoric - that IS the overwhelming point of this great Republic, isn't it?

Anything less would be a travesty,....

grackle said...

Being white and a math major, I have a question for the others on this blog: Is poetry supposed to mean something?

My short personal answer to the general question of meaning is: For me poetry has to make me feel something. But poetry can make me feel something only if it has meaning that I can understand. Others would have respectable arguments in opposition to my take on the subject.

Notice that I use the verb, "make," as opposed to, say, "allow." Good poetry forces me to feel some way I wouldn't have felt if I had not read the poem. It compels me to see what I had not seen before.

What is really being posed here is that age-old question, "What is poetry?"

My answer is: I do not know.

Another interesting question: How is poetry different from prose? After all, every poetic device is also used to good effect in prose. Metaphor, meter, anaphora, etc., it's all there in prose.

Some say "line breaks" are what sets poetry off from prose.

I think it is only possible to generalize.

A poem can resemble prose.

When I first tried seriously to read Walt Whitman I did not like the poetry. I thought, "This is just prose with line breaks." However, I kept at it. After maybe 15 or 20 pages his words began to have a profound effect. There was a mysterious cumulative consequence from the words – a state that I had been totally unaware of until it sneaked up on me.

Deeper into the poem, "Song of Myself," I began to realize the greatness and the uniqueness of the poet. From that day on, as had many others before me, I read Whitman with relish. He is our giant. He changed poetry. He was the first real American poet. Before him it was all European sensibility reproduced in an American idiom.

After that I read more about Whitman, the man. He was gay. He was one of my signposts on my way to acceptance of gayness.

So, yeah. For me poetry is supposed to mean something.

Austin said...

I think the culture that American whites have built, a culture characterized by science, mathematics, technology, art, music, literature, architecture, and commerce, is pure genius. The culture is so extraordinary in fact, that hordes of non-whites from around the world ceaselessly and relentlessly seek entry to it.

Conversely, the various cultures established by non-whites, cultures driven by corruption, chaos, violence, voodoo, poverty, lawlessness, and mayhem, are essentially a blight on humanity.

Nichevo said...

Oh I see. Well I could argue but talk about wrestling with a pig! I don't like sly people or those who like them. Nor coprophiles. Thanks for clearing that up.

Nichevo said...

Crack,

Whut?

Austin said...

And I would counter-argue, but I too don't like wrestling with a pig!

Joe said...

What is poetry?

Here's some:

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.

Nichevo said...

Austin, were you talking to me, because I wasn't talking to you.

Austin said...

Ooops.....

Nichevo said...

Lol! No worries, as everybody at work seems to say these days.