"Amazing Peace"

by Maya Angelou
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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1426

First published: New York: Random House, 2005

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Genre: Poetry

Subgenre: Lyric poetry

Core issues: African Americans; Christmas; connectedness; friendship; hope; peace

Overview

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.

Christian Themes

The title of the poem immediately calls to mind the hymn “Amazing Grace,” in which the speaker comes through “many dangers, toils, and snares,” and the earth ultimately dissolves like snow. Yet the hymn proclaims that God offers a life of “joy and peace” after trial and tribulation, a theme echoed in Angelou’s “Amazing Peace.”

Like prophecies in the Bible, Angelou’s poem is an oracular revisioning of the future conceived of as a return to creation out of a formless void, as in Genesis 1 and 2. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and amid growing fears of global warming, the first two stanzas of the poem strip Everytown, USA, as bare as winter and forecast coming disasters in what appears to be the apocalypse. The Job-like speaker questions God: “Are you there? Are you there, really?” God is pressed to remember his covenant, which could refer either to the promise he made to Noah that he would never destroy the earth with water—disqualifying twenty-first century hurricanes and avalanches—or to the covenant made with Abraham that countless descendants would inherit a promised land.

The poem describes a present-day Babel, partitioned according to religions, nations, and tribes, wherein communication is predominantly argument and accusation. Angelou, a Protestant, impartially addresses members of all major religions and sects: Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Jainists, and Confucians. These “believers and nonbelievers” alike have failed peace or simply have no alternative vision.

Into this purgatory, shifting between the negative forces of natural disaster, war, and hatred, “Christmas enters.” In a passing reference, the “Holy Instant” of Jesus’ birth is credited as being the universal source of trust, hope, and peace. Jesus alone is responsible for the “Glad Season,” a time of Yuletide friendship “streaming lights of joy,” “ringing bells of hope,” and “singing carols of forgiveness.”

“Amazing Peace,” read before the lighting of the national Christmas tree, returns Christianity to the meaning of this holiday symbol. The poem unapologetically acknowledges that the birth of Christ is ecumenical and impartial, the only reason to commemorate December 25 and the only means of initiating peace on earth. This Christmas poem boldly offers the world an oblique invitation to accept the advent of light, Jesus Christ, and the peace he wants to bring to earth. “Amazing Peace” echoes the utopian vision of “On the Pulse of Morning” when it urges “all the earth’s tribes” to stop hating one another and “look beyond complexion and see community.” Angelou envisions everyone joining hands and together seeking peace in these often-quoted lines: “We, Angels and Mortals, Believers and Nonbelievers,/ Look heavenward and speak the word aloud./ Peace.”

Sources for Further Study

  • Angelou, Maya. Collected Autobiographies. New York: Modern Library, 2004. A compilation of Angelou’s six acclaimed autobiographies, unabridged.
  • Angelou, Maya. Conversations with Maya Angelou. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989. Reprinted interviews from 1971 to 1988 reveal Angelou’s indomitable, nonconformist spirit and insistent survivor’s drive as she created her identity and found her place in America.
  • Hagen, Lyman B. Heart of a Woman, Mind of a Writer, and Soul of a Poet: A Critical Analysis of the Writings of Maya Angelou. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1996. Hagen aspires to validate Angelou’s prominent status in his effusive presentation of “layers and depth” within her eclectic canon of messages or “sermons.” Bibliography, index.
  • Lupton, Mary Jane. Maya Angelou: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Lupton discusses the structural and literary development in each volume of Angelou’s five-volume autobiography, arguing that Angelou transcends both the genre and the African American experience. Bibliography, index.
  • McPherson, Dolly. Order Out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou. New York: Peter Lang, 1990. A critical study that comprehensively examines topics including the circuitous journey, homecoming, maternal angst, personal chaos, and epiphanies in five autobiographies. Bibliography.
  • Saher, Annette D., Sebastian M. Brenninkmeyer, and Daniel C. O’Connell. “Maya Angelou’s Inaugural Poem: ’On the Pulse of Morning.’” Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 26, no. 4 (July, 1997): 449-463. A technical, fascinating linguistic analysis charting how the inaugural poem’s true meaning is conveyed only through the unpredictably rich sounds and rhythms of Angelou’s performance.

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