Evidence that Maya Angelou may have borrowed from another poem for the one she delivered at Bill Clinton’s inauguration was reported in this magazine last December. The White House, having seen the December Chronicles and the subsequent news stories about it, appears to have opted to distance itself from Angelou rather than to defend her. Apparently, the White House is cognizant of the fact that at this point in the Clintons’ presidency, it cannot risk yet another instance of things not being what they seem.
In 1985, Norton F. Tennille, Jr., a Washington, D.C., lawyer for the prestigious Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue law firm, wrote a poem, “Outward Bound,” following a wilderness adventure with the North Carolina Outward Bound School, an educational organization that promotes self-reliance. It was widely distributed throughout North Carolina among individuals connected with the Outward Bound program. Tennille’s poem begins “Rock, rope, river, hands” and uses those images, and that of the tree, as its structure. When Tennille heard Angelou deliver “On the Pulse of Morning,” which opens with “A Rock, A River, A Tree,” he immediately recognized the resemblance.
Tennille wrote to Angelou, who, during the days between her selection by Clinton and her reading at the swearing in ceremony, had met with individuals connected with Outward Bound and “shared her struggle” by recounting the difficulties she was having composing the poem. Tennille sent Angelou copies of both poems on which he diagramed the parallel structure and noted the identical imagery and themes. Tennille asked her, “Did you ever read my poem, and did you draw on its concept, structure, [and] images in constructing your own?”
Tennille made additional inquiries to Angelou’s publisher. Random House, and her employer, Wake Forest University. A year later, Tennille has yet to receive any response from Angelou, her publisher, or Thomas K. Hearn, Jr., president of Wake Forest. Angelou, whose real name is Marguerite Johnson, has also failed to respond to my numerous, repeated questions about this matter, as well as to questions from other media representatives.
Random House published Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now last fall and sent Angelou on a frenzied publicity tour to promote her small collection of short essays. She lurched at interviewers who asked about the creation of the poem. Her bizarre reaction was never more blatant than on Charlie Rose’s PBS talk-show. Rose merely uttered the words “A Rock, A River, A Tree,” and before he could even articulate his question, Angelou lunged back, “Shall I tell you about the rock?” She attributed the images of the poem to the “African-American soul.”
Particularly important to her was that the poem has been “translated into 40 languages or so.” Said Angelou: “I may get three translations of my poem in Bengali and of course the alphabet is not recognizable to me. The only way I know it’s my poem is there’s a tree, a drawing of a rock, and a stream with some frisky fish in it,” and she moved her hands to simulate a fish swimming.
Letters Tennille exchanged with Angelou’s publicist and stockbroker were unavailable to me when I wrote my December report. These documents provide new insight. Both men told Tennille, “I hope you will let this matter rest.” Perhaps they were afraid of what could become of the evidence that appears to be against her.
“I fail to understand why an intelligent attorney would spend so much time searching for similarities which do not exist,” wrote Robert J. Brown, president of B&C Associates, Inc., a High Point, North Carolina, outfit that schedules Angelou’s press interviews. “I was fortunate to have witnessed the creation of Dr. Angelou’s inaugural poem,” said Brown. “While I sat nearby, she wrote and then recited the lines she composed. It was fascinating to watch her work.”
If Brown’s story is accurate, it conflicts with Angelou’s vivid account of the method she used to write the poem, a ritual she claims to have used throughout her entire literary career. She secludes herself in a local motel room, where she instructs the manager to remove any paintings or decorative material that may distract her solitude, and with a Bible, thesaurus, yellow legal pad, and bottle of sherry she begins to write. Being in a motel room with her press agent as she writes her literature, asking him every few minutes if he approves of the work in progress, is a marked departure from her normal routine.
Letters from Campbell Cawood, Angelou’s stockbroker at Alex, Brown & Sons, Inc., in Winston-Salem, were even more curious. “She and I have been personal friends since her arrival in Winston-Salem,” said Cawood. “I too was in close contact with her while [the inaugural poem] was being composed,” he wrote. When I later questioned Cawood about this assertion, he denied it, saying, “I wasn’t there,” and then, in the same interview, “I don’t know if I was there because I was there several times when she was in a composing mode—she thinks fluidly, constantly.” Cawood refused to concede in his letter that Angelou had borrowed from Tennille’s poem, saying only that Angelou had lifted “biblical verses,” “beloved spiritual hymns,” “our Constitution,” and “many other references” and used them as her own.
During my interview with Cawood, he said, “If Tennille wants to take her on, I promise him, he won’t know what hit him.” I asked him to explain. “She’s a very articulate—she will respond very accurately and deliberately to him. If you’ve heard her speak, you know her command of the English language and her command of logic. She speaks seven languages—lectures in seven languages. She has no formal education. She has memorized Shakespeare—she can recite every line of Shakespeare.”
Cawood went on to praise Angelou and to say that she had “created a masterpiece of great dimension.” He called the idea that Angelou could have been inspired by Tennille’s poem “mental masturbation” and “a frivolous exercise.” But when pressed, Cawood admitted that he didn’t even know whether Angelou had seen Tennille’s poem prior to the inauguration. As Cawood concluded his missive to Tennille: “I pray your tenancy [sic] and correspondence in attempting to contact her [Angelou] was in a grateful spirit and not as I and others have interpreted it.”
Tennille wrote back to Cawood and listed seven examples of the similarities. “The theme of each poem is to look to these aspects of nature and draw strength from them, literally and/or metaphorically,” said Tennille. “Another theme is return to the natural elements as a stimulus to self-discovery,” Tennille explained. Both poems, he said, personified the rock and river. Tennille also said his poem personifies ropes hanging from trees; Angelou’s personifies the tree. Tennille’s other personification is “hands”; Angelou’s poem says, “Women, children, men,/Take it [the dream] into the palm of your hands.” Both end with affirmation. “At the end of each there is the theme of turning to, or trusting in, each other,” said Tennille.
Tennille asked Cawood about the Outward Bound connection: “Indeed, it now appears that Professor Angelou wrote the poem in the presence of Robert Brown, a founding Trustee of the North Carolina Outward Bound School. If he has had a copy of [my] poem on display (which would not be surprising), is it not possible that she had seen it, perhaps many times?” Still stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the similarities of the works, Cawood fired another brusque letter off to Tennille, saying “I firmly believe there is NO similarity between ‘Outward Bound’ and ‘On the Pulse of Morning.'” He concluded his letter by writing, “As Mr. Brown has suggested to you, I hope this matter is put to rest.”
The New York Post and Manchester Guardian (Great Britain) published news stories about the December Chronicles article. Both papers attempted to talk to Angelou about the matter, but she refused to comment. Only after the Guardian story had gone to press did Angelou talk with its reporter, and when asked about the Tennille poem, she began singing black spirituals to him over the telephone.
In preparation for this update, I again contacted Angelou to get her feedback on the matter. Her secretary, who works out of an office in Angelou’s large Winston-Salem home, agreed to ask Angelou about the Tennille poem. After I was placed on hold for over five minutes, the secretary returned to the telephone and informed me, “Dr. Angelou has decided not to grant you an interview.”
I followed up with a written request to Angelou for information:
I was informed this morning by Ms. Langston, of your office, that after she conferred with you about the Tennille poem, your position was that you had not seen it prior to today. This seems curious in light of the fact that Mr. Tennille’s poem has been sent to you on several occasions: once personally, then via Certified Mail to your publisher. Random House, and again via Certified Mail through your employer. Wake Forest University, in care of President Thomas K. Hearn, Jr. In addition, Samuel T. Cladding, Assistant to the President for Special Projects at Wake Forest, has indicated that he personally gave you a copy of Mr. Tennille’s poem. Further, I know that your publicist. Bob Brown, of B&C Associates, has shared Mr. Tennille’s poem with one or more persons outside his firm, and it would seem exceedingly unlikely that Mr. Brown would share this most sensitive information with outsiders, and leave you “out of the loop.”
Obviously, the circumstantial evidence points to one of the following two conclusions: either you were mistaken in reporting to Ms. Langston that you had not seen the poem prior to today or you are now attempting to conceal your prior familiarity with Mr. Tennille’s poem (which suggests its own conclusions in turn). Because the most important thing for me to achieve is the truth, I once again invite you to contact me with any information you care to share that would shed light on which of these is the true conclusion.
Not unlike Norman Tennille, I still await a response.
While a cynic could easily argue that the actions of Angelou and those closest to her have been in keeping with the duplicity and artifice that have become so characteristic of Angelou’s life, he would be missing the more important moral of this story. The diversity that supposedly comes from race and gender means very little. Angelou was celebrated for bringing unparalleled vision and insight to the inauguration, something a white male like Robert Frost was supposedly incapable of offering. Maya Angelou wrote a poem that essentially expresses the same sentiments and uses the same structure and imagery, save her gratuitous politically correct references to ethnic groups, the environment, homosexuals, and greedy capitalists, as the poem Norton Tennille—a white male—wrote almost ten years earlier.