Maya Angelou Angelou, Maya (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

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 Inheritors” (television script) 1976

“Sister, Sister” (television script) 1982

“The Legacy” 1983

I Shall Not Be Moved 1990

R. B. Stepto (essay date 1979)

(Poetry Criticism)

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 from “work songs” and “protest songs” that have come before. In this eight-stanza poem, the even-number stanzas constitute a refrain—obviously, a “work song” refrain:

One more round
And let's heave it down.
One more round
And let's heave it down.

At the heart of the odd-number...

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Maya Angelou with Cheryl Wall (essay date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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J. T. Keefe (review date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Maya Angelou with Claudia Tate (interview date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Priscilla R. Ramsey (essay date 1984–5)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Peter Erickson (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4418 words.)

Sandra Cookson (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 534 words.)

Elaine Slivinski Lisandrelli (essay date 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Lyman B. Hagen (essay date 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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A. R. Coulthard (essay date 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 133 words.)