Poetry 126: The Rock Cries Out to Us Today by Maya Angelou


A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Mark the mastodon.

The dinosaur, who left dry tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.

I will give you no hiding place down here.

You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness,
Have lain too long
Face down in ignorance.

Your mouths spelling words
Armed for slaughter.

The rock cries out today, you may stand on me,
But do not hide your face.

Across the wall of the world,
A river sings a beautiful song,
Come rest here by my side.

Each of you a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.

Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.

Yet, today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more.

Come, clad in peace and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I
And the tree and stone were one.

Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your brow
And when you yet knew you still knew nothing.

The river sings and sings on.

There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing river and the wise rock.

So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew,
The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek,
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the teacher.

They hear.
They all hear
The speaking of the tree.

Today, the first and last of every tree
Speaks to humankind.
Come to me, here beside the river.

Plant yourself beside me, here beside the river.

Each of you, descendant of some passed on
Traveller, has been paid for.

You, who gave me my first name,
You Pawnee, Apache and Seneca,
You Cherokee Nation, who rested with me,
Then forced on bloody feet,
Left me to the employment of other seekers-
Desperate for gain, starving for gold.

You, the Turk, the Swede, the German, the Scot…

You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru,
Bought, sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream.

Here, root yourselves beside me.

I am the tree planted by the river,
Which will not be moved.

I, the rock, I the river, I the tree
I am yours- your passages have been paid.

Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.

History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage,
Need not be lived again.

Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.

Give birth again
To the dream.

Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.

Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need.
Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.

Lift up your hearts.

Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.

Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.

The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.

Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out upon me,
The rock, the river, the tree, your country.

No less to Midas than the mendicant.

No less to you now than the mastodon then.

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

Image courtesy of Pixabay.com

About Richard Flanagan

I’m an Operating Department Practitioner who works for my local NHS trust in Shropshire, UK. I’m married with two young children (plus two dogs and a corn snake) and am currently undertaking an Open University degree in History. I listen to a lot of music of all genres, but especially Rock (Punk, Alternative etc.) and enjoy cooking, eating and drinking. Although I don’t consider myself to be a Buddhist I am interested in some Buddhist ideas and practices. As such, I was briefly active with Secular Buddhism UK and it was through that group that I came to be involved with the Middle Way Society.

8 thoughts on “Poetry 126: The Rock Cries Out to Us Today by Maya Angelou

  1. Maya Angelou’s poems always raise the pernickety in me. I find them too long-winded, too declamatory in a self-consciously show-off way, and also rather trite.

    Her call to the tribes “You, the Pawnee, the Cherokee, the Turks, the French etc…..” calls forth in me the irresistible grievance, “What about the Mongols, the Koreans, the Welsh, the Gibraltarians, the Australian aborigines, the Cechua of Peru…..?”

    Aren’t they as worthy as her preferred ones of a privileged summons to the Rock, only to be hectored stonily by the the same for hoping to find refuge in its shade?

    Some nice poetic touches: “the horizon leans forward to invite….”, “the fine pulse of the new day”; but I do find the work rather tedious and shakily portentous. Perhaps only Maya Angelou could get away with a public reading of it, she’s one of contemporary life’s “National Treasures” like Jeremy Clarkson. Even Clarkson is more to my taste!

    1. Hi Peter,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I have to come clean and admit that I don’t read much poetry and I don’t even know who Maya Angelou is, despite posting on of her poems here. In fact I would go so far to say that I find a great deal of poetry to be declamatory in a rather show-offy way. Reading poetry to myself often leaves me cold; I much prefer to hear it read aloud by someone who knows how to read it. Accordingly, I am not well equipped to tell good poetry from bad, if such a distinction can even be said to exist.

      I suppose, then, that I should explain why I chose this poem. An increasing number of people seem increasingly to be lurching to extremes, nationalism seems to be on the rise and differences are too often treated with fear and suspicion, rather than being understood, celebrated or even accepted (at the very least). In this climate, the message – as I understand it – of this poem resonated with me, and seemed worth sharing. I took the message to be one of inclusion and tolerance. Yes, she only lists a selection of human groups, but I was not struck by the absences. It would be impossible to list all of the human groups that exist and I suppose she could have just written ‘all humans, regardless of religion, race, gender, age, nationality, class’, but that would not have read as well (in my opinion). As such the list she does provide is extensive, and for me the intent was clear; there are many ways in which we are divided (by choice or otherwise), but, in the words of Jo Cox (the British MP tragically murdered during the ‘Brexit’ campaign. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jo_Cox): there is ‘far more [that] unites us than divides us’, whether we realise it or not.

      The following lines seemed especially relevant:

      ‘Each of you a bordered country,
      Delicate and strangely made proud,
      Yet thrusting perpetually under siege’.

      ‘History, despite its wrenching pain,
      Cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage,
      Need not be lived again’.

      ‘Do not be wedded forever
      To fear, yoked eternally
      To brutishness’.

      followed by:

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


  2. Hi Rich, very chuffed to see your reply, it’s ages since we were in touch! I appreciated your posting something, I never do these days, but seeing your name prompted me to write something, even if it was a bit Disgusted Of Tunbridge Wells (is he still alive and kicking?).

    Can’t disagree with anything you say, really. The world has got itself into another of its fine messes, no doubt about that. Maya Angelou laments it (as she often does, and in her own inimitable Mills & Boon style), and calls out to us all to be nice to each other. It’s all a matter of taste, I suppose, and she’s not on my Christmas wish-list! I acknowledge that she has gazillions of admirers.

    I like poetry generally, and – like Robert – I enjoy writing it, although I wouldn’t want to publish it. I was once told by a respected teacher of English literature (admittedly it was in the crazy 1960s) that I might make a living out of writing poetry. I didn’t try: I might have been a Brummie Seamus Heaney?

    I didn’t bring much by way of Middle Way thinking to my comment. I just fired off in my entrenched knee-jerk way with an emotionally driven response. A more considered and reflective view might have acknowledged the power that Maya Angelou has to influence others, because she isn’t overly intellectual and uses vivid imagery to get her message across. Her simplicity is her gift, and her un-self-conscious passion for integration across boundaries. (Berlina reminds me here that she is dead, I’d forgotten if ever I’d noticed).

    I think this is why I seldom post. It reminds me of how stubbornly dogmatic I can be, and I don’t like it much. Not giving rein to my worst tendencies seems, on balance, to reduce their intensity. I don’t write much on-line these days, and my days are much quieter generally since we came to France (it’s over a year now). I talk to our chickens and enjoy their company daily. They follow me round the garden and dodge my rake and hoe as I weed the plot, their claws and beaks scratching and pecking for worms and creepy-crawlies (“bestioles” in French, doesn’t have quite the ring of the Anglo-Saxon, does it?).

    They stuff their gizzards full every day and retire to their perches full and content. What more could I ask? Cluck.

    My very best wishes to you and your family.

  3. I have to agree with Peter here about the poem. Overblown and rhetorical, it often reads more like a speech being read out at a rally in Washington than a poem. There seems to be a particular kind of overblown rhetoric which only Americans go in for, and perhaps my restrained Englishness winces at it. But, indeed, one can’t disagree with the sentiments. A bad poem with its heart in the right place seems preferable to a good poem with its heart in the wrong place.

  4. Hi,

    Peter, there is no need to apologise for your reaction, I’m pleased that there was one! I suspect, as someone who doesn’t respond well to poetry in general, that I’m drawn to verse that employs vivid imagery without the need for excessive intellectual analysis. As I ‘ve already alluded, I find a lot of poetry needlessly overblown (English of American); I suppose it’s a matter of taste.

    Having thought about it I’m not sure that a bad poem with its heart in the right place is preferable to a good poem with its heart in the wrong place. As demonstrated here, the discussion has not been about the sentiment of Angelou’s work, rather it has been about the merits, or lack thereof, her writing. It may be preferable to have a well written, but ill intentioned, poem that provokes discussion about it’s content, as this might stimulate debate about the content, as well as receiving praise for artistic accomplishment.


  5. I’m wondering what an example of a good poem with its heart in the wrong place might be. Something by Ezra Pound perhaps? Or even TS Eliot? I have to admire TS Eliot’s ability as a poet, but every time I pick him up these days he seems cold and dogmatic. How about this one by TS Eliot, which is very popular and often read out in carol services. Technically it’s streets ahead of Angelou, but I really don’t like the feel or tone of it, and find it hard to put my finger on why. I’d say it has its heart in the wrong place. http://www.poetryarchive.org/poem/journey-magi

    1. I’m enjoying this three-hander! Thanks to you both for stirring the wok.

      As for Eliot’s poem, I heard it read this afternoon on Radio 4. Reading it this evening, I’m left wondering what is has about it to leave you cold, Robert. Admittedly the allusions are of cold, austerity, discomfort, both physical and mental, set against mention of the magis’ earlier assumptions of warmth, comfort and privilege. But this dissonance is, for me, stirring, if not cosy in the usual evocative Christmas cliche.

      Do you know if Eliot was a believer? He certainly seems to me to be able to confront and acknowledge the absurdities of the Christian story without denying its enduring power. Reminds me of something I read recently, can’t remember where or about whom: when challenged about how he could possibly have faith in a religion whose doctrines were so patently absurd, he replied cheerfully, “I believe in them precisely because they’re absurd!”

      There’s some undeniable sense in that reply for me. I do recognise, however, that my capacity for decreeing sense and nonsense is not a little impaired. The good news is that it is capable of recovery.

      Where do you think, and in what condition, was Lewis Carrol’s heart when he wrote The Walrus And The Carpenter or the Owl And The Pussycat?

  6. Thanks Peter, yes Eliot was a Catholic. The belief in dogmas because they’re absurd goes back to Tertullian via Kierkegaard, and strikes me as a shortcut from complex intuitions to absolutes, which rather represents what I don’t like about Eliot. He understands all the complexity and wonder of experience and can convey it: but rather than living with that complexity, he wants to reduce it to a simple absolute answer. I’ve been thinking about the wonders of incarnation as it appears in Jung’s Red Book recently, but I don’t find that in ‘The Journey of the Magi’. The birth seems to be an answer that shuts off further questions, and its grinding difficulty for the magi just seems to create sunk costs rather than conveying anything positive about it.

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