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...
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