‘Awaking in New York‘ explores themes of city life, community, or lack thereof, and perception. The poem uses techniques such as imagery and personification to create an image of New York city that is equal parts wistful and draining.
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Summary of Awaking in New York
In the poem’s eleven lines the speaker describes through vivid imagery, the dreams that children share with the angels, the violence of the wind against curtains, and the mundanity of day to day city life. In the last line, the speaker brings themselves into the poem, addressing their position, how they wake up, and how they consider the rest of the world.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of Awaking in New York
‘Awaking in New York’ by Maya Angelou is an eleven line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, but are all around the same length. The shortest is two words and the longest is four words long. Despite the lack of a rhyme scheme, a choice common throughout Angelous’ poems, there are several examples of half-rhyme.
Also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line, or multiple lines of verse. For example, “alarm” and “awake” in line eight and “unasked” and “unheeded” in line eleven.
Poetic Techniques in Awaking in New York
Angelou makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Awaking in New York’. These include but are not limited to, alliteration, enjambment, personification, and simile. The latter, simile, appears towards the end of the poem.
A simile is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. In this case, Angelou compares her speaker to “a rumour of war”. This is an interesting comparison and one that will spawn several different interpretations. She is perhaps alluding to how a rumour, such as one about war, could spread. It would move quickly and spark fear throughout a community. The speaker is as awake as this rumour would be.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “will” and “wind” in lines one and two. Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For instance, the transition between lines four and five.
Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. For example, in the sixth and seventh lines where the speaker describes the city as pulling itself awake.
Analysis of Awaking in New York
Curtains forcing their will(…)seraphim. The city
In the first lines of ‘Awaking in New York’ the speaker begins by describing the movement and sounds of the curtains in their window. The hanging cloth is fighting against the wind that’s trying to push its way into the room. This is a very clear example of personification. The curtains are described as though they have the ability to fight back against something as a human would, rather than just being inanimate objects.
This is occurring, as are the other images, while the speaker is waking up in New York. Before focusing on themselves, the speaker references “children”. These young people are not denied. It could be a certain group they are thinking of or all the children sleeping in New York, or in the world.
These same sleeping children, in the next lines, are said to be “exchanging,” or sharing, dreams with ‘seraphim” or angels with multiple pairs of wings from the Bible. These words of peace, “dreams, and “seraphim,” are juxtaposed against the more violent and powerful words of “will,” “forcing,” and “against” in the first lines
The fifth line of ‘Awaking in New York’ is slip, transitioning the speaker suddenly into an image of the city as a whole.
drags itself awake onsubway straps; and(…)lie stretching into dawn,unasked and unheeded.
In contrast again with the image of the children, the speaker describes how the city wakes up. It “drags itself awake”. This is another example of how personification can be used to help a reader better imagine an image that the poet has in mind. It is pulling itself awake on “subway straps”. This alliterative line is an interesting one. It refers to the handles that passengers grasp onto on the subway trains. The straps are a mundane image that represents the morning commute that the city engages in.
It is not until the eighth line of ‘Awaking in New York’ that the speaker acknowledges their presence in the city. This person refers to themselves as “an alarm” They are “a / rumor of war”. These two images go together in their suddenness and violence. But, an alarm is something regular. This is how the speaker sees themselves, as a product of the everyday patterns of city life. They likely get up with the alarm and go to bed at the same time every day.
Angelou uses a simile in these lines to compare the speaker to “a rumor of war”. These rumours are dangerous, powerful, and spread quickly creating fear in a community. They are wide awake, in amongst all the structured chaos of New York. The last line, “unasked and unheeded” alludes to solitude or alienation. They are alone, but very much a part of the same patterns as the rest of the city.