There are a number of reasons for a poet to write a poem. Some wish to tell a story; some are writing to express their innermost feelings; others are providing social commentaries or critiques. Maya Angelou often used her poetry to comment on the state of the world around her, having grown up in difficult circumstances in the United States of America. By titling her poem so, ‘These Yet To Be United States,’ she accuses the country name of being a misnomer, and creates an immediate sense of intrigue around her work.
This poem was published in Angelou’s 1990 volume, I Shall Not Be Moved, and likely speaks to Angelou’s own experience growing up in the United States on the less privileged side of society; she endured discrimination, poverty, abuse, and many other hardships. While much had changed within the United States between 1928 and 1990, Angelou’s participation in the civil rights movement says a great deal about her passion and will for speaking out against a society she felt could be bettered in some way.
These Yet To Be United States Analysis
Tremors of your network
cause kings to disappear.
Your open mouth in anger
makes nations bow in fear.
From the title of the work, it seems likely that the “you” addressed within the poem is directed at an entity representing the United States of America. The country is being personified to convey the feelings surrounding its actions, and to give its actions tangible meaning. “Your open mouth in anger,” for example, could mean any number of things within the context of one country’s people or government opposing another’s, but it is clear that the speaker holds this personified country in a kind of forced awe. The first verse is written to indicate that the “you” is one of the most powerful people alive, and it does so by introducing important concepts that inform much of the rest of the poem. “Tremors of your network” brings to mind an image of a spider’s web, using vibrations to sense activity and then reacting to them. The “you” so-described is wary, intelligent, and powerful.
Your bombs can change the seasons,
obliterate the spring.
What more do you long for?
Why are you suffering?
The second verse continues with some of the themes expressed in the first one, particularly with the first two lines extending the descriptions of the nation’s power. A bomb that changes the seasons and obliterates the spring is a likely reference to the nuclear arsenal of the country. The second half of the verse, however, examines the country in a different light. It suggests that a person seeks power because they want something, either for their own self or for the world around them. When the speaker asks for the source of the other’s suffering, they are suggesting that this person seeks power to make their own self better, and wonder at the cause of this. This kind of analysis only works through personification; a country cannot literally be suffering or desiring anything — depending on definition, it is either a geographical region, or a group of people large enough that they cannot have a single, clearly defined will or feeling.
Stanzas Three and Four
You control the human lives
in Rome and Timbuktu.
Lonely nomads wandering
owe Telstar to you.
Seas shift at your bidding,
your mushrooms fill the sky.
Why are you unhappy?
Why do your children cry?
The next two verses follow a very similar pattern to the first two; the first six lines of the combined verses comment on the power held by the United States, and the final two use that comment to wonder at how such a powerful and influential nation can seem so unhappy despite this. The third verse of the poem describes an influence held on the lives of people who live far away from the North American continent, while the second one makes another reference to the nuclear power held by the country — and then asks about its children, who are described as crying.
They kneel alone in terror
with dread in every glance.
Their rights are threatened daily
by a grim inheritance.
Continuing from where the last verse left off, the “they” described in this verse are children who live in the United States. This verse, in contrast to the verses that preceded it, uses words such as “terror,” “dread,” “threaten,” and “grim” to greatly influence the poem’s atmosphere in a distinctly negative way. It describes a present and a future that are both undesirable, unenviable, and definitely bad. Within the context of the verses that precede it, it wonders without directly asking how it can be that the United States can both “change the seasons” and be the home of children who cry because they are incapable of looking forward to what the future may bring.
You dwell in whitened castles
with deep and poisoned moats
and cannot hear the curses
which fill your children’s throats.
The concluding verse for the poem brings in a heavier use of metaphor than used previously; interestingly, here the “you” takes on an alternative meaning as previously as well. The metaphor of “whitened castles / with deep and poisoned moats” creates an image of an ideal kind of world surrounded by a bitter and undesirable one. The description of “deep and poisoned moats” in particular suggests that anyone who is in a castle cannot leave, and anyone outside can’t get in. This suggests that there is a divide within society, and that the crying, cursing children, are on the outside looking in.
For all of this to be true, however, the “you” in this verse cannot refer to the United States as a whole, because the “children” (who in themselves could be a metaphor for the underprivileged or poorer part of society) would be a part of the collective whole that is the United States. The “you,” therefore, likely refers to a more elite upper class that is here described as having sealed itself away from the rest of the struggling world. In here, the title of the poem becomes perfectly clear — if the society of the country is divided, can it truly be said to be “united” in any capacity?