A poet's benediction In 'Morning,' interest dawns

January 27, 1993|By Wayne Hardin and Stephanie Shapiro | Wayne Hardin and Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writers

Immediately after Bill Clinton became president last week, more of the post-inaugural clamor dealt with Hillary Clinton's bright blue hat than with the first poem read at a presidential inaugural in 32 years.

But in the week since Maya Angelou, writer, poet and professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., ended the inauguration of Mr. Clinton by reading "On the Pulse of Morning," people have been talking about it, and the poem has quickly found a place in classrooms of area schools.

Some didn't like the poem, which was written for the inauguration, or were confused by it. At least one listener wondered just what were those "dry tokens" left by the dinosaur in Ms. Angelou's opening lines? They sounded more like "dinosaur doo doo" than the fossils Ms. Angelou alluded to, this critic said. Others lauded the work's message of hope, courage and sense of inclusiveness.

Stacie Greene, 15, a 10th-grader at Milford Mill High School, says Ms. Angelou is her favorite poet but she's not so sure "On the Pulse of Morning" is her favorite Angelou poem.

Still, Stacie was proud when her English teacher asked her to read "On the Pulse of Morning" at a poetry reading honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. the day after the inauguration.

She isn't ready to replace "Phenomenal Woman" with "Morning" as the Angelou poem she likes best, but Stacie finds much to admire in the 106-line free-verse poem, even if it "might have been a little long."

"I liked the way she was talking about what needed to be done and the way she used 'Rock, Tree, River,' " she says. "And I liked the end about greeting the world by just saying good morning."

Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a Maryland Republican not previously known as a literary critic, would agree with Stacie's point about length. The poem lost her at "about the fourth line," she groused on Inauguration Day.

Some Baltimoreans -- Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions employees -- may be able to find out more about Ms. Angelou tomorrow when she gives a reading of her work at a Martin Luther King Jr. tribute at Hopkins.

"I think what she was saying was the truth," says Mary Toskes, a member of the John Booth Senior Center in East Baltimore, of the poem. "She was good and I enjoyed her."

"It's a message to the American people to have hope," says Paula Dozier, director of public relations for Maryland Historical Society.

Rosemary Klein, director of the writing center at Dundalk Community college, editor of the Maryland Poetry Review and a poet, hears a message beyond the words. "Without poetry," she said, "society would be brutish."

Jocelyn Garlington, a Baltimore poet who works at the National Committee for Citizens in Education in Washington, includes herself among the critics of "Morning."

"It didn't pass my spine-tingling criteria . . . didn't make me feel anything profound," Ms. Garlington says. "I like to feel poetry . . . get a rush. It just didn't do that for me. I was kind of hoping we would all get a collective rush. [That was] one reason Bill Clinton wanted poetry there. . . . It's been an 'OK-to-feel' campaign."

But Ms. Garlington's mother, also a poetry fanatic, is crazy about the poem. "It is lovely, it is wonderful; it was not long enough," says Bernice Garlington. "When she said, 'Look into your brother's face, into your sister's eyes and there is hope and simply say, very simply, Good Morning.' Oh, I thought it was so beautiful. . . . Hope just rang so loud and clear."

Impressed by "On the Pulse of the Morning," many area high school English teachers are using the poem in their classrooms.

Janet Clinton, Stacie's English teacher at Milford Mill, brought in a copy of the poem the morning after the Wednesday inaugural ceremony.

"Three students in my grade-10 gifted and talented class read parts of it," Ms. Clinton says. "Stacie was one of the three."

The poem was written to encourage a national commitment to change, but it also can be appreciated on other levels, Ms. Clinton says. "Environmentally and ecologically, it also is a great poem. . . . On another level, it could be interpreted romantically for what it said about relationships and how we should not be wedded to old fears."

Margaret Gaudin, an English teacher at Randallstown High School, discussed the Angelou poem Friday with her 10th- and 12th-graders. She views it as a "call to action."

"I had it on the overhead projector," Ms. Gaudin says. "The students took turns reading it aloud. The first time we went through it, we stopped after each stanza and talked about it. After we had dissected it, we did another choral reading of it so we could experience the whole poem again."

The response?

"Unilaterally, they loved it," she says.

"I thought the poem was very insightful," says Carrie Peek, 15, one of Ms. Gaudin's 10th-graders. "There was a lot of imagery with the tree, rock and river. I thought Maya Angelou presented it eloquently."

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