Angelou, Maya (Poetry Criticism)
Maya Angelou 1928-
(Born Marguerite Johnson) American poet, autobiographer, screenwriter, playwright, actress, singer, and political activist.
In her poetry, as in the five volumes of autobiography upon which her fame rests, Angelou's primary concern is with the distillation of experience into immediately accessible language. Her writing attempts to capture and preserve the determining forces, vicissitudes, and ambiance of her own life story and of the ongoing African-American story, which helped to shape her and which she reflects and illuminates.
Born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1928, abandoned by both her parents when they divorced, Angelou early experienced the twin forces that would determine the shape of her life and the nature of her career: personal rejection and institutional racism. Until her teen years when she lived with her mother in San Francisco, she lived with her paternal grandmother, a strong independent woman who ran a grocery store, in Stamps, Arkansas. On a visit to her mother in St. Louis, when Angelou was eight, she was raped by her mother's boyfriend. After his murder by her uncles, she returned to her grandmother in Arkansas. Traumatized by the events, she stopped speaking, and only regained her voice in her early teens. At sixteen, soon after her high school graduation, Angelou became the single mother of a son. Her life continued to present her ample material for autobiography. She has been at various times in her life a streetcar conductor, Creole cook, madam, prostitute, junkie, singer, actress, and civil-rights activist. Angelou toured Europe for the U.S. State Department in Porgy and Bess, and appeared on Broadway and Off-Broadway in the Negro Ensemble Theater Company's famous production of Jean Genet's The Blacks. She wrote for the theater, the movies, television, and achieved celebrity with the first volume of her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Married and divorced several times, Angelou has lived and worked in Ghana and in Egypt, where she was associate editor of the English language Arab Observer. Angelou has written plays, composed musical scores, written television programs, and lectured on literature. She achieved national prominence in 1993 when she read “On the Pulse of the Morning,” a poem she had written, at his request, for Bill Clinton's presidential inauguration.
As in her volumes of autobiography, Angelou's poems suggest a context of experiences and character of incidents that give them meaning, rather than being autonomous creations independent of external, experiential reference. As with her volumes of autobiography, they, too, show twin concerns: the effects and consequences of individual desire, experience, oppression, and loss, and the social, psychological, and spiritual responses to racial and sexual brutality.
Despite the popular success of her poetry, general critical consensus holds that Angelou would be hardly known as a poet were she not famous for the chronicles of her life. Her poems are considered by some critics to be thin in substance, lacking in poetic invention, and lackluster in language. Others, however, argue that the poems belong to a neglected oral tradition, incorporate elements of African-American slave songs and work songs, and must be seen as lyrics which require performance to reveal their depth and riches. As critic Lyman B. Hagen has observed, “Angelou may rank as a poet of moderate ability, but her poetry is praised for its honesty and for a moving sense of dignity.”
Just Give Me A Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie 1971
Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well 1975
And Still I Rise 1978
Shaker, Why Don't You Sing? 1983
Now Sheba Sings the Song 1987
I Shall Not Be Moved 1990
“On the Pulse of Morning” 1993
The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou 1994
Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women 1995
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (autobiography) 1970
Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (novel) 1976
The Heart of a Woman (autobiography) 1981
Gather Together in My Name (autobiography) 1983
All God's Children Need Travelling Shoes (autobiography) 1986
Cabaret for Freedom [with Godfrey Cambridge] (drama) 1960
The Least of These (drama) 1966
Black, Blues, Black (television series) 1968
Georgia, Georgia (screenplay) 1972
Ajax (drama adapted from Sophocles) 1974
All Day Long (screenplay) 1974
Assignment America (television series) 1975
And Still I Rise (drama) 1976
(The entire section is 146 words.)
SOURCE: A review of And Still I Rise, in Parnassus,Vol. 8, No. 1, Fall–Winter, 1979, pp. 313–15.
[In the following review, Stepto finds the poems in Angelou's third volume “woefully thin,” but significant because of their relation to her autobiographical writing.]
… And Still I Rise is Angelou's third volume of verse, and most of its thirty-two poems are as slight as those which dominated the pages of the first two books. Stanzas such as this one,
In every town and village, In every city square, In crowded places I search the faces Hoping to find Someone to care.
or the following,
Then you rose into my life, Like a promised sunrise. Brightening my days with the light in your eyes. I've never been so strong, Now I'm where I belong.
cannot but make lesser-known talents grieve all the more about how this thin stuff finds its way to the rosters of a major New York house while their stronger, more inventive lines seem to be relegated to low-budget (or no-budget) journals and presses. On the other hand, a good Angelou poem has what we call “possibilities.” One soon discovers that she is on her surest ground when she “borrows” various folk idioms and forms and thereby buttresses her poems by evoking aspects of a culture's written and unwritten heritage. “One More Round,” for example, gains most of its energy...
(The entire section is 730 words.)
SOURCE: “Women Writers Talking,” edited by Janet Todd, Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1983, pp. 59–67.
[In the following interview, originally conducted in 1981, Angelou talks about her writing habits and the values by which she is guided, and those which she wishes to pass on.]
In 1969 Maya Angelou published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a memoir of her girlhood in Stamps, Arkansas, and San Francisco, California. The book quickly became a contemporary classic. More fully than any writer before her, Angelou laid bare the pain of the black girl's coming of age. She counted the costs of being doubly disenfranchised in a society that denied black women's beauty and worth. Yet interlaced with the sadness was joy, conveyed in the spiritual peace and power of her grandmother and in the élan with which her mother lived her life. Ultimately, Caged Bird is a song of triumph: the young Maya's triumph over self-hatred, the triumph of the black communities that sustained themselves despite the white world's racism, and the triumph of a writer whose love and command of language are profound.
Three subsequent volumes, Gather Together in My Name, Singin', Swingin', and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas, and The Heart of a Woman, document Angelou's womanhood. They record her successful careers as dancer, singer, actress, and civil rights administrator as well as her...
(The entire section is 4028 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Shaker, Why Don't You Sing? in World Literature Today, Vol. 58, No. 4, Autumn, 1984, p. 607.
[In the following thumbnail review, Keefe praises Angelou's poems in Shaker, Why Don't You Sing?]
Deceptively light and graceful, Maya Angelou's poems are lyrical, emotional, melancholy. They move to inner tunes—“I wait in silence / For the bridal croon,” we read in the title poem—and chart a stoic angst reminiscent of Piaf. As in Piaf, there is here deep gut feeling based on history and myth. “Family Affairs” is a poem that encapsulates the story of the poet's painful origins, beautifully realized in contrapuntal harmony against the legend of Rapunzel (she of the folktale who let down her golden hair for her lover to climb to her tower). With an enviable economy, Angelou contrasts black/white tensions, using this myth as a framework. It is a wise and deeply felt poem. Again, “Caged Bird” expresses this poet's central motif. A rhythmical and hypnotic chant that cries out to be sung, the actual form of the poem echoes its theme.
The caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still and his tune is heard on the distant hill for the caged bird Sings of freedom.
These poems are full of shining hurt as, like curving scimitars, they skillfully pierce the hearts of their readers.
(The entire section is 227 words.)
SOURCE: “Conversations with Maya Angelou,” edited by Jeffrey M. Elliot, University Press of Mississippi, 1989, pp. 146–56.
[In the following interview, originally conducted in 1983, Angelou discusses the influence of other writers, social conditions, and her own experience upon her work.]
Maya Angelou: Image making is very important for every human being. It is especially important for black American women in that we are, by being black, a minority in the United States, and by being female, the less powerful of the genders. So, we have two areas we must address. If we look out of our eyes at the immediate world around us, we see whites and males in dominant roles. We need to see our mothers, aunts, our sisters, and grandmothers. We need to see Frances Harper, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer, women of our heritage. We need to have these women preserved. We need them all: … Constance Motley, Etta Motten. … All of these women are important as role models. Depending on our profession, some may be even more important. Zora Neale Hurston means a great deal to me as a writer. So does Josephine Baker, but not in the same way because her profession is not directly related to mine. Yet I would imagine for someone like Diahann Carroll or Diana Ross, Miss Baker must mean a great deal. I would imagine that Bessie Smith and Mammie Smith, though they are important to me, would be even more so to Aretha Franklin....
(The entire section is 4356 words.)
SOURCE: “Transcendence: The Poetry of Maya Angelou,” in Current Bibliography on African Affairs, Vol. 17, No. 2, 1984–85, pp. 139–53.
[In the following essay, Ramsey argues that Angelou creates transcendent meaning from oppressive experience in her poetry.]
Maya Angelou's physical shifts from Stamps, Arkansas' Lafayette County Public School to the Village Gate's stage in Manhattan and from New York to a teaching podium at Cairo University in Egypt represent an intellectual and psychological voyage of considerable complexity—one of unpredictably erratic cyclic movement. She has chronicled some of this voyage in her three autobiographies: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,1 a bestseller (in 1970), Gather Together in My Name (1974),2 and Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (1976).3 Her final and most recent autobiography is The Heart of a Woman (1982).4 Additionally she has written three collections of poetry: Oh Pray My Wings are Gonna Fit Me Well (1975),5And Still I Rise (1978),6 and Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ’fore I Diiie (1971).7
In addition to her full length creative writing there have been so many additional accomplishments characterized by so much variety one can only speak of them superficially in this limited space. After...
(The entire section is 5100 words.)
SOURCE: “Shakespeare, Angelou, Cheney: The Administration of the Humanities in the Reagan-Bush Era,” in Rewriting Shakespeare, Rewriting Ourselves, University of California Press, 1991, pp. 111–23.
[In the following excerpt, Erikson explores Angelou's remarks on Shakespeare, and their implications, challenging how they were employed by Lynne Cheney, Ronald Reagan's director of the National Endowment for the Humanities, in a report about the conflict in academia over determining the scope, nature, and value of the Western Literary Canon.]
The emotional high point of Lynne V. Cheney's Humanities in America is her quotation of an extended passage from an address by Maya Angelou in which Angelou quotes Shakespeare's Sonnet 29 and asserts: “‘I know that William Shakespeare was a black woman.’”1 In this heightened moment, Cheney links and fuses three voices—Shakespeare's, Angelou's, and her own—thus creating the conjunction to which my title refers. However, my purpose is to challenge the impression Cheney conveys of a unified canon of Western literature, and I shall do so by suggesting that there are significant differences between Angelou's use of Shakespeare and Cheney's representation of Angelou's Shakespeare. My procedure will be, first, to examine the overall structure of the report of which the Angelou quotation is a part and, second, to consider this quotation...
(The entire section is 4418 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou and Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 4, Autumn, 1995, p. 800.
[In the following review, Cookson praises Angelou's use of black-speech rhythms, inflections and patterns in her poetry.]
Maya Angelou's five volumes of poems are here collected, reset in a handsome typeface, and produced in a collector's first edition. As a sort of companion volume, her publisher, Random House, has brought out a separate, pocket-size volume of “four poems celebrating women,” entitled Phenomenal Woman (after the title poem). It too is handsomely designed; the publisher no doubt hopes to capitalize on the wider recognition of the poet, following her reading of her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the inauguration of President Clinton in 1993.
Angelou's poems celebrate black people, men and women; at the same time, they bear witness to the trials of black people in this country. Implicitly or directly, whites are called to account, yet Angelou's poetry, steeped though it is in the languages and cultures of black America, does not exclude whites. Quite the reverse: the poems are generous in their directness, in the humor Angelou finds alongside her outrage and pain, in their robust embrace of life. They are truly “celebratory.”
(The entire section is 534 words.)
SOURCE: “The Pulse of Morning,” in Maya Angelou: More Than a Poet, Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1996, pp. 5–13.
[In the following vignette, Slivinski Lisandrelli depicts Angelou's composition and presentation of the Clinton inauguration poem “In the Pulse of Morning.”]
In a country store in the dusty town of Stamps, Arkansas, a young girl sits near the candy counter. Outside, a sharp wind rustles through the shingles, but inside a potbellied stove warms the small store. Between customers she often writes poetry or reads from her beloved books.1 These pursuits take her mind off the pain of growing up in the segregated South of the 1930s, where opportunities are denied to her because she is African American. On this day she memorizes the Presidents of the United States in chronological order.2
A tap on the counter disturbs her concentration. She never intended to ignore the customer who came to patronize her grandmother's store.3 With a sigh, she closes the book. She accurately scoops up a half-pound of flour, and gently places it into a thin paper sack.4
Years later, after she journeyed far away from this Arkansas town, and overcame many hardships, a special opportunity was presented to this child who grew up to be Maya Angelou—author, playwright, professional stage and screen producer, director, performer, and singer. On a...
(The entire section is 1274 words.)
SOURCE: “Poetry: Something About Everything,” in Heart of a Woman, Mind of a Writer, and Soul of a Poet: A Critical Analysis of the Writings of Maya Angelou, University Press of America, Inc., 1997, pp. 118–36.
[In the following excerpt, Hagen presents an anatomy of Angelou's poetry and its subject matter.]
Of Maya Angelou's six published volumes of poetry, the first four have been collected into one Bantam paperback volume, titled Maya Angelou: Poems (1986). Her early practice was to alternate a prose publication with a poetry volume, and a fifth “collection” follows her fifth autobiography. Unlike the four previous volumes of poetry, this fifth work titled Now Sheba Sings the Song (1987), adds a new dimension. Here fifteen or so short poems are responses to sketches of African-American women done by artist Tom Feelings, whom Angelou has known for many years. The combined talents of these two are highly complementary and the results are particularly appealing. A sixth volume, I Shall Not Be Moved (1990), contains new love poems and praise poems. A four poem inspirational collection has been available under the title Phenomenal Woman. These four are previously published poems.
Angelou's poems are a continuum of mood and emotion. They go from the excitement of love to outrage over racial injustice, from the pride of blackness and African heritage to...
(The entire section is 5294 words.)
SOURCE: “Poetry as Politics: Maya Angelou's Inaugural Poem, ‘On the Pulse of Morning,’” in Notes on Contemporary Literature, Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, January, 1999, pp. 2–5.
[In the following essay, Coulthard argues that “On the Pulse of Morning” is a bad poem, sloppy in construction, and hackneyed in content.]
Since Maya Angelou delivered her Clinton inaugural poem, she has shot onto the bestseller list, performed in a film titled (ironically enough) “Poetic Justice,” and, if a mind-boggling news snippet is correct, reported 1995 earnings of 4.2 million dollars. “On the Pulse of Morning” recently was set to music and performed by the Winston-Salem Symphony as testimony to its enduring fame. When I ask my literature majors to nominate the best living American poet, Ms. Angelou always gets several enthusiastic mentions. Never in the long course of literary history has so much been made of, and from, so little.
Polemical is almost always bad art because it assumes that worthy ideas are enough. Literary political crusaders who also honor the craft of their work, as Shelley did in some of his proletarian poems, are rare. More typically, the dogma-driven poet pays insufficient heed to artistic demands, such as the excellent one expressed by the poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins when he defined poetry as “speech framed … to be heard for its own sake over and above...
(The entire section is 1713 words.)
Saher, Annette D., Sebastian M. Brenninkinmeyer and Daniel C. O'Connel. “Maya Angelou's Inaugural Poem.” Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, Vol. 26, No. 4 (1997), 448–63.
The authors use Angelou's inaugural poem as a database for a linguistic analysis of the meaning generated in a text by its performance.
Additional coverage of Angelou's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 20; Black Literature Criticism, Vol. 1; Black Writers, second edition; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 19; Contemporary Black Biography, Vol. 1; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 12, 35, 64, 77; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 38; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-Studied Authors, Multicultural, Poets, and Popular Fiction and Genres Authors; Major 20th-Century WritersSomething About the Author, Vol. 49; and World Literature Criticism Supplement.
(The entire section is 133 words.)