The Poetry of Angelou Angelou’s Journey to Success

Maya Angelou

Angelou’s Journey to Success

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The televised reading of her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the inauguration ceremony of President Bill Clinton in January, 1993, represented a crowning moment for Maya Angelou, who had already received many honorary degrees and awards during her multifaceted career. The broadcast also reminded her readers that Angelou, although better known as an autobiographer, is first and foremost a poet.

Angelou’s poetry occupies a special position in her development as a writer. As a child, Angelou went through five years of self-imposed silence after she was raped at the age of seven by a Mr. Freeman, who was subsequently kicked to death by her uncles. The loss of her voice was a result of the trauma, which made her imagine that her voice could kill. Thanks to her teacher, Bertha Flowers, Angelou started writing poetry and overcame her trauma. Poetry thus played an essential part in the recovery of her voice, which in turn signaled the success of the healing process.

Angelou’s commitment to be a writer began at the age of about thirty. By the time she started publishing, she had gone through a number of dramatic turns in her personal and social life. The pattern emerging from those events is that of a person’s struggle to establish, as Dolly A. McPherson says of Angelou’s autobiographies, “order out of chaos,” a struggle to relate her personal experience to the general condition of African Americans, so that the individual’s chaotic life is given order through the awareness of being related to the communal experience. Angelou’s poetry also bears out this struggle, which Pricilla Ramsey characterizes as the transformation of “the elements of a stultifying and personal, social, political and historical milieu into a sensual and physical refuge.”

Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ’Fore I Diiie (1971) is typical of Angelou’s poetry in that the poems employ two related voices to address individual as well as communal issues, so, eventually, the personal voice (for example, the lover’s) merges with and becomes indistinguishable from the communal voice (for example, the social critic’s). The communal voice, in other words, transcends the personal at the end of the struggle. The two voices are evident from the two parts of the book.

Part 1, “Where Love Is a Scream of Anguish,” focuses on various kinds of male-female relationships and employs the “I” persona. Some of these relationships are love affairs filled with bittersweet emotions, as in “Remembering” and “Tears.” Even at the most tender and most intimate moments, the shadow of insecurity and loss looms large, as in “After.” The shadow is especially prominent in relationships that are somewhat abnormal, as in the...

(The entire section is 1128 words.)