Maya Angelou Reads “Still I Rise” and “On the Pulse of the Morning”

As we mourn Maya Angelou on the day after her death, it’s heart­en­ing to remem­ber that she lived sev­er­al more life­times than most in her 86 years, some filled with pain and strug­gle, some with great joy. While gen­er­al­ly known as a poet, writer, teacher, actress, and activist, Angelou actu­al­ly got her start in the pub­lic eye as a Calyp­so dancer and singer, even appear­ing in a film, Calyp­so Heat Wave and releas­ing an album, Miss Calyp­so, both in 1957. It’s said that Bil­lie Hol­i­day told Angelou in 1958, “you’re going to be famous but it won’t be for singing,” She was right of course, but Angelou retained the air of a per­former as a read­er of her work.

Above, see her deliv­er an ani­mat­ed read­ing of her famous poem, “Still I Rise,” which ref­er­ences many of her past lives, includ­ing lines that seem to allude to her Miss Calyp­so days: “Does my sex­i­ness upset you? / Does it come as a sur­prise / That I dance like I’ve got dia­monds / At the meet­ing of my thighs?” The stan­za is indica­tive of anoth­er qual­i­ty among the many she enu­mer­ates, “sassi­ness.” But she begins the read­ing on a more sober note, with a state­ment about human resilience, the abil­i­ty to get up and face the day, despite the fears we all live with. “Wher­ev­er that abides in a human being,” she says, “there is the noble­ness of the human spir­it.”

That resilience, the tran­scen­dence of painful per­son­al and ances­tral his­to­ries, was the great theme of Angelou’s work, whether in poems like “Still I Rise” or her reveal­ing 1969 auto­bi­og­ra­phy I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, also the title of a poem from her 1983 col­lec­tion Shak­er, Why Don’t You Sing?. While the caged bird is a very per­son­al sym­bol for Angelou, her poem “On the Pulse of the Morn­ing,” which you can see her read above at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inau­gu­ra­tion, speaks to the whole human species in ele­men­tal terms. Again she twines themes of tran­scend­ing painful and bloody his­to­ries with those of the “noble­ness of the human spir­it.” The speak­er of the poem is the earth itself, who address­es each of us as “a bor­dered coun­try / Del­i­cate and strange­ly made proud.” “His­to­ry,” she writes in much-quot­ed lines from the poem’s ninth stan­za, “despite its wrench­ing pain / Can­not be unlived, but if faced / With courage, need not be lived again.” For all the pain Angelou her­self endured and faced with courage, it’s a sen­ti­ment she earned the right to pro­claim. Her cel­e­bra­tion of not only the par­tic­u­lar African-Amer­i­can strug­gle, but also its part in the uni­ver­sal human strug­gle for dig­ni­ty and pur­pose stands as her endur­ing lega­cy. She ends the poem where she begins her read­ing of “Still I Rise” above, with a call for us to treat each oth­er with care and respect, to not be “wed­ded for­ev­er / To fear, yoked eter­nal­ly / To brutish­ness”:

Here, on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sis­ter’s eyes, and into
Your broth­er’s face, your coun­try
And say sim­ply
Very sim­ply
With hope –
Good morn­ing.

Both poems will be added to our col­lec­tion, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Dylan Thomas Recite His Clas­sic Poem, “Do Not Go Gen­tle Into That Good Night”

Hear Sylvia Plath Read 50+ of Her Dark, Com­pelling Poems

Stream Clas­sic Poet­ry Read­ings from Harvard’s Rich Audio Archive: From W.H. Auden to Dylan Thomas

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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