The poem “Awakening in New York” was written by Maya Angelou. She has been a personal hero to me, and I wrote a tribute to Maya after she passed away May 28, 2014 that you may remember. Her writing resonates within me, and that is why I enjoy reading and rereading poems written by her. The poem “Awakening in New York” is one example.
At the surface level, this poem is about waking up in the morning somewhere within the city of New York. However, there are deeper concepts to explore, such as the emotions felt by the narrator toward his or her self and the city. “Awaking in New York” (find the full text here at the Poetry Foundation) is told in the first-person narrative of “I.” It is never explained to the reader within the poem whether “I” is a male or female.
The imagery of the short poem is creatively done, beginning with first two lines:
Curtains forcing their will
against the wind
I take these lines to be a clever way to describe the loud bellowing of the wind as it blows into a room and moves curtains, with the curtains thudding against walls. The wind represents the turbulence the narrator feels from within. That feeling of inner conflict is explored throughout the one-verse poem that is 11 lines in length.
The turbulent self is described again with the lines:
I, an alarm, awake as a
rumor of war
Here, poet Maya Angelou compares the self to an alarm, which indicates the self follows routines, and that waking up to start a day is one of those routines. The word alarm is an interesting one, a deliberate word she chose to use here. After all, an alarm is a piece of technology without a tangent emotional connection. Angelou uses the word alarm to explain that the narrator feels empty and void of positive emotion.
When the narrator or “I” of the poem compares himself or herself to a “rumor of war,” this expression is telling of the past conflict in life that the narrator has experienced. That person is now the product of difficult times. Those “wars” have created the void discussed in the prior line.
There is also reference within “Awakening in New York” to children sleeping. The lines read:
exchanging dreams with
While the children dream of seraphim, which are fairies like those described in the Old Testament, the narrator does not describe himself or herself with the same happy regard. Fairies are associated with children while an alarm and crashing curtains are the world of the narrator. Perhaps Maya Angelou is explaining that the “I” voice wishes to return to the innocence that is often connected with being a child.
The “I” of the poem also feels unwanted. While the city of New York awakens or begins its busy day, “I”:
lie stretching into dawn,
unasked and unheeded.
These are the two final lines of Maya Angelou’s poem. The narrator awakens in the morning yet does not feel like participating in the events that day. Feelings of neglect and the uselessness of self are conveyed here.
Maya Angelou has explained so much about a person who is feeling disengaged from life, even within what is arguably the most exciting place to be in the US, which is the city of New York. The narrator has a turbulent past, perhaps wishes to return to a state of innocence, and feels useless within New York. Huge concepts are presented in an original manner within the poem “Awaking in New York.”
Aside from being well-known as an American poet, Maya Angelou has also composed several autobiographical written pieces and gave several inspirational lectures. She is much appreciated as a speaker for Black people and female empowerment.
©2015 Christy Birmingham