Maya Angelou Poetry: American Poets Analysis
Asked in 1983 what she hoped to achieve as a writer, Maya Angelou answered, “to remind us that we are more alike [than un-alike], especially since I’ve grown up in racial turbulence and unfairness.” Two 1990’s poems reflect the dichotomy of her declaration: “Human Family” celebrates family likeness, and “Son to Mother” denounces wrongs inflicted by various branches of the human family. Angelou in her poetry dissects and resurrects humankind: She condemns its shamefulness and rejoices in its possibilities and its glories.
“Some poets sing/ their melodies,” writes Angelou in “Artful Pose,” published in 1975, “tendering my nights/ sweetly.” Angelou, in contrast, chooses to write “of lovers false” “and hateful wrath/ quickly.” She adds the word “quickly” to balance and countermand “sweetly.” Her style as she speaks to live audiences and to readers, whether her tone is optimistic or pessimistic, reveals a sense of “gusto.” In 1982 she offered this bit of self-analysis:If you enter a room of hostile strangers with gusto, there are few who can contain, preserve their hostility. . . . [I]t speaks immediately to the gusto in other people.
European American audiences applaud her and purchase her work even as she berates them: “You may write me down in history/ With your bitter, twisted lies,” she says in the opening lines of one of her most famous poems, “Still I Rise.”
“I’ll play possum and close my eyes/ To your greater sins and my lesser lies,” she writes in a jump-rope rhythm in “Bump d’Bump.” “That way I share my nation’s prize,” she continues. “Call me a name from an ugly south/ Like liver lips and satchel mouth”; gusto, anger, and a challenge to humankind are integral ingredients of Angelou’s poetry.
In “Man Bigot” Angelou writes,
The man who is a bigot is the worst thing God has got except his match, his woman, who really is Ms. Begot.
Angelou is not unwilling to amuse as she challenges her audience. She did not leave the entertainment field behind when she turned to verse. Other entertaining and uplifting elements of her poetry are sass and the celebration of womanhood. “Men themselves have wondered/ What they see in me,” says the speaker of “A Phenomenal Woman.” A part of her mystery, she says, is in “the fire in my eyes,” “the joy in my feet,” and
The grace of my style. I’m a woman Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me.
Sass and anger
Sass is an element in 1978’s “Still I Rise,” but anger consistently tempers its speaker’s joy. “Does my sassiness upset you?” and “Does my haughtiness offend you?” she asks her European American readers. “Out of the huts of history’s shame/ I rise,” says her African American speaker. In “Miss Scarlett, Mr. Rhett, and Other Latter-Day Saints,” Angelou writes,
Animated by the human sacrifice (Golgotha in black-face) Priests glow purely white on the bas-relief of a plantation shrine.
In “Slave Coffle” (1983) she speaks as a slave to whom “all the earth is horror,” as the speaker realizes “Before the dawning,/ bright as grinning demons” that “life was gone.”
Although Angelou has told interviewers that she has mellowed since writing her first volume of poetry, her verse remains harsh to the reader’s mind and ear. Shame and ignorance recur as significant themes. Pride, however, is at least as significant.
Pride in ancestors
In 1975, Angelou declared “Song for the Old Ones” her favorite poem. Her celebration of those who kept her race alive remained a favorite theme. Her 1990 volume of poetry, I Shall Not Be Moved, has as its title the chorus to the poem “Our Grandmothers.” Her sense of pride in these old ones and her sense of kinship with them is evident in the words she gives one of these grandmothers. To those who hurled ribbons of invective into the wind of history,
She said, But my description cannot fit your tongue, for I have a certain way of being in this world, and I shall not, I shall not be moved.
In “Old Folks Laugh” (1990), she writes that old folks’ laughter frees the world. The freedom that the grandmothers offer their children in “Our Grandmothers” is the freedom to be fully human: They tell them, “When you learn, teach. When you get, give.”
“I laugh until I start to crying,/ When I think about my folks,” says the speaker of “When I Think About Myself.” Angelou’s poetry shows that the stories of her people continued to fill and to break her heart. The title of the volume containing “Song for the Old Ones,” Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well, seems, as does the title of her 1990 volume, I Shall Not Be Moved, to derive from her wish to be worthy of and to emulate the old ones.
That Angelou gives the final position in the 1990 volume to the poem dedicated to other, less great, old ones is significant, as is the idea of that poem: “When great souls die,” she says in the final stanza,
Our senses, restored, never to be the same, whisper to us. They existed. They existed. We can be. Be and be better. For they existed.
Unbelievable cruelty has given rise to unbelievable valor. Angelou cannot and will not forget the history of human cruelty as she feels that human beings must learn from their shared history. She continues to show human beings what they must learn that they can be better.
Guilt and responsibility
Crucial to her overall idea is the shared guilt and responsibility of all history’s survivors. In “I Almost Remember” (1975), the speaker recalls smiling and even laughing, but now
Open night news-eyed I watch channels of hunger written on children’s faces bursting bellies balloon in the air of my day room.
The speaker’s garden, television, and day room suggest the luxuries and the guilt of one of the “haves” as she/he witnesses the suffering of the “have-nots” on the “channels of hunger.” Similarly, “Harlem Hopscotch,” with a seemingly different tone and a hopscotch rhythm, shows children singing of “good things for the ones that’s got.” “Everybody for hisself,” they continue. The pain of both the television viewer and the children reflects the suffering as well as the scarring of the human psyche.
“Take Time Out” challenges the acceptance of the status quo, challenging the attitude of all human players of life’s game:
Use a minute feel some sorrow for the folks who think tomorrow is a place that they can call up on the phone.
The speaker of this poem asks that kindness be shown for the folk who thought that blindness was an illness that affected eyes alone. “We’d better see,” says the speaker,
what all our fearing and our jeering and our crying and our lying brought about.
Society is responsible for its children and for its own and its children’s attitudes. As she shows in “Faces,”
the brown caramel days of youth Reject the sun-sucked tit of childhood mornings. Poke a muzzle of war in the trust frozen eyes of a favored doll.
This is what humanity has wrought and what it must not accept. Humankind must be rendered both human and kind, the poet seems to say.
Angelou calls repeatedly on the human race to spare itself from suffering. “There’s one thing that I cry for I believe enough to die for/ That is every man’s responsibility to man,” says the speaker of “On Working White Liberals.” “Dare us new dreams, Columbus,” says the speaker of “A Georgia Song” (1983). In “America” (1975) Angelou speaks of America’s promise that “has never been mined”: “Her proud declarations/ are leaves in the wind.” The United States, says the speaker, “entraps her children/ with legends untrue.” This country of such high promise—the promise that all are equally entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—has not yet been discovered. Its citizens are led by their poet laureate to see that it is high time that the discovery be made.