Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 715
Maya Angelou’s books of poetry, like her groundbreaking autobiographies, have topped best-seller lists. The first printing of the 32-page Amazing Peace was 230,000—a record for a book of poetry. Readers who are impatient with the ambiguity and complexity of much modern verse find Angelou’s poetry disarmingly casual and accessible on the first reading.
Although Angelou (then known as Marguerite Johnson) received only a modest public education in Stamps, Arkansas, and San Francisco, she overcame sexual and spousal abuse and prostitution to become an autobiographer, poet, and teacher. She has become nationally known and respected for her work, which is more political and populist than that of many writers.
The political overtones in her work reflect her long history as a civil rights activist. She was appointed coordinator for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1959-1960) and worked on civil rights committees for Gerald Ford (1975-1976) and Jimmy Carter (1978-1979).
Angelou’s prominence in the arena of civil rights led to her being called on to create special occasion verse for political events. For Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration on January 20, 1993, Angelou composed and performed “On the Pulse of Morning.” At the time, the United States poet laureate was the scholarly African American poet Rita Dove, but Angelou’s triumphant spirit more broadly represented the Democratic platform. Angelou received a Spoken Word Grammy for the White House reading. Two years later, Angelou delivered “A Brave and Startling Truth” for the United Nations’ fiftieth anniversary.
During the White House’s Sixty-Third Annual Pageant of Peace on December 1, 2005, Angelou read “Amazing Peace” before President George W. Bush lit the national Christmas tree. Peace on Earth has been the theme of the tree-lighting ceremony since President Calvin Coolidge began the Pageant of Peace tradition in 1923.
Angelou’s “Amazing Peace,” influenced by the rhetoric, rhythm, and imagery of Southern black preachers and gospel choirs, generated meaning through her performance of the poem and was imbued with significance because of the preeminent setting at the White House and the momentous occasion. However, “Amazing Peace” does not stand on its own as a spectacular piece of literature. Critical responses to “Amazing Peace,” described as an “antiwar” poem, were largely unfavorable, with one critic describing it as being “memorable” only for being “unmemorable.” In fairness, however, it is important to remember that the main purpose of national, special occasion verse is not to be ambiguous, profound, and intricate, but to function as a rousing call to a mass of listeners.
Angelou, a charismatic seventy-seven-year-old when she read her poem at the White House, was a mature matriarchal figure who had weathered many personal storms. She began her poem with a tribute to the thousands of victims of Hurricane Katrina, which had ravaged New Orleans and the southern United States just months before her reading. Wielding power from the first word, “Thunder,” to the last phrase, “Peace, my Soul,” “Amazing Peace” opens with a clap of thunder and a flash of lightning that by the end of the 480-word, 13-stanza poem, is subdued by the jubilant shouts of the masses, crying for peace.
“Amazing Peace” depends on counterbalance for its structure: tempest and peace, shouts and silence, warring and waiting, fear and security, believers and nonbelievers, brother and sister, as well as heaven and earth. The audible, visual storm is the only extended metaphor, functioning as a literal storm and figuratively as despair. Otherwise, the imagery is manipulated arbitrarily: an avalanche becomes a raised platform, a tabula rasa for a peaceful world to reach higher ground.
“Amazing Peace” dreams big, but realistically; it acknowledges that peace is not here yet, so it incants the word into being, expectant that peace will fall on the platform as if it were the landing pad for a space shuttle. In the 62-line poem, the first mention of “peace” appears at the midpoint. This “true Peace”—“Not just the absence of war”—becomes the dominant theme. At first a whisper, it increases and becomes louder than exploding bombs. Somehow it creates a majestic world of harmony and security. As a poet, Angelou hoped to be more than a “peacemaker”; she wanted to speak to hearts of every “hulk or dove” as a “peacebringer” and urge them to pursue peace in their daily movements.
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