Sherley Anne Williams endeavored to present truth through authentic portrayals of African Americans in her poems. Her poetry uses realism and honesty to convey strong emotions and intimate revelations through characters, mostly female and including Williams, who express frustration with the social and economic situations in which they find themselves. Williams creates a voice for the despair of vulnerable and misunderstood people. She writes of the resourcefulness, determination, and survival of the speakers of her poems as they are tested by poverty, abandonment, and other problems. Freedom is a consistent theme as her characters strive to become independent of whatever controls them and to get around their limitations. Dignity and optimism resonate in Williams’s poems as people attempt to improve, not worsen, their conditions. Williams urges African Americans to recognize the importance of community, both family and neighbors. Her poems expand readers’ awareness of their personal and cultural responsibilities.
Williams’s poetry is often compared to African American music. She discussed musical influences on literary structure, themes, and language in “The Blues Roots of Contemporary Afro-American Poetry” (Massachusetts Review, 1977). Williams uses the blues format to reiterate and rephrase in successive lines of verse the emotional pain people suffer from intolerable circumstances. She addresses concerns tormenting many African Americans, including broken relationships, oppression, and ostracism. Her characters yearn for others to comprehend and respect their actions and feelings without rejecting or punishing them. The creation of blues-inspired poetry enabled Williams to connect modern readers with historic examples of how African Americans used music to communicate. The musical nature of Williams’s rhythmic lines and her use of vernacular and dialect effectively convey tone, motifs, and imagery.
The Peacock Poems
In her first poetry collection, The Peacock Poems, Williams focuses on her experiences as an African American woman. Williams addresses relationships, a frequent blues theme, in these poems, presenting her interactions with her son as a mother, with her parents as a daughter, and with men as a lover. The peacock of the title refers to people who flaunt themselves or their prized possessions much as peacocks fan their magnificent feathers and preen themselves to demand attention. Williams shows off her pride for her only child in many of the collection’s poems. In others, she confesses flaws and failures most people might choose to hide.
Williams acknowledges that her poetry depicts episodes from her life, especially those involving losses, frustrations, and disappointments. She believes her experiences have universal elements that many women will recognize. Her comprehension of blues music enables her to present the conflicting emotions that women often feel and their desperation as they encounter detrimental people and situations they cannot control. Her repetition of wording and lines to emphasize statements and feelings are...
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