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...

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Therapeutic Poetry

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In writing Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (1975), which was inspired by a song (the tune from “a slave holler” and the words from a nineteenth century spiritual), Angelou’s purpose was “to put all the things bothering me—my heavy load—in that book, and let them pass.” The book continues the pattern of ordering chaos by merging the individual and the communal voices, but there is an increasing amount of humor, wit, tenderness, and meditation. The first two parts, which deal with love in its various guises ranging from consolation (“Conceit”) to frustration (“Poor Girl”), are intensely personal. The success of these poems lies mainly in their drama: Moments of moodiness are captured lyrically (“Passing Time”) along with temperamental outbursts (“The Telephone”) to suggest a special type of romance that an early-middle-aged African American woman (see “On Reaching Forty”) finds herself getting into, only to realize that instead of romantic leaves and birds and snows and nights, “I need to write/ of lovers false/ and hate/ and hateful wrath/ quickly” (“Art Pose”).

The personal drama in this volume once again is enacted against the backdrop, in parts 3 through 5, of historical and contemporary realities, including the alienation of the poor (“Alone”), the abandonment of the underprivileged (“Request”), the sexist victimization of women (“Chicken-Licken”), and various other social injustices (“Southeast Arkansas”). This sense of heaviness is directly related to the failure of the American Dream for African Americans. Angelou’s emphasis here is not so much to condemn America as to rediscover the real America (“America”) and, as an antidote, to appreciate the New Africa emerging from colonialism and to learn about African civilization itself (“Africa”). Linking the two continents by means of space (the ocean) and time (history), Angelou comes to terms with her identity and ethnicity in a series of carefully crafted poems including “Child Dead in Old Seas,” “Song for the Old Ones,” and “Elegy.” Mysteriously, these poems are characterized by a combination of poignancy and triumph, thus indicating the poet’s belief that her race has never been broken.

And Still I Rise (1978) further develops Angelou’s pattern of turning chaos into order, and order dominates. Part 1, “Touch Me, Life, Not Softly,” consists of poems about love in many guises. Here Angelou treats it as a subject of study and critique rather than as an experience to indulge in. For example, in “A King of Love, Some Say” and in “Men,” she addresses the issue of abusive relationships; in “Where You Belong: A Duet” and “Just for a Time,” she portrays types of men who “fool around” and regard women as possessions. Because the poet frequently assumes the persona of a man, the voice in these poems is not only a lover’s but also an actor’s or a director’s. In part 2,...

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Poetry of the Nation

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Because Angelou’s stature as a public figure has been enhanced by her connections with presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton, her poetry has taken yet another turn, namely toward the construction of a civic culture conducive to the democracy of the United States. She may be perceived as being didactic in many poems, including “On the Pulse of Morning,” but since she has courageously taken up the burden of a public mission, these poems ought to be understood in the context of the rage toward order to which Angelou has devoted her entire life.

The drive toward the great order of the nation is evident from many poems in I Shall Not Be Moved (1990). The title of the volume is derived from the refrain of “Our Grandmothers,” a composite portrait of the historical role of black women. It also reminds readers of a popular song that declares, “On our way to freedom, we shall not be moved.” Evidently, Angelou cannot bear to see the chaos of an individual like herself expanded to a national or even global scale; as she writes in “These Yet to Be United States,” that country’s awesome power is the source of suffering at home and abroad. This statement is, however, a patriotic one because Angelou’s ultimate concern is how the wounds can be healed. Risking didacticism, she explains that “In minor ways we differ,/ in major we’re the same. . . . We are more alike, my friends,/ than we are unalike” (“Human...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Angelou, Maya. Conversations with Maya Angelou. Edited by Jeffrey M. Elliot. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989. A handy collection of thirty-two interviews conducted at different times. Contains many comments by Angelou on her own poetry.

Coulthard, R. “Poetry as Politics: Maya Angelou’s Inaugural Poem, ’On the Pulse of Morning.’” Notes on Contemporary Literature 28, no. 1 (January, 1999): 2-5.

McPherson, Dolly A. Order Out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou. New York: Peter Lang, 1990. Provides theoretical insights into Angelou’s writings.

Plimpton, George. “Maya Angelou.” In Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. 8th ser. New York: Penguin Books, 1988. An interview in which Angelou discusses the concept of “deep talk,” which sheds light on her poetry.

Ramsey, Pricilla R. “Transcendence: The Poetry of Maya Angelou.” In Current Bibliography on African Affairs, 17, no. 2 (1984-1985): 139-153. A rare article focusing on Angelou as a poet; proposes the idea of transcendence in her poetry.

Tate, Claudia, ed. Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1983. Contains an interview with Maya Angelou (reprinted in Conversations with Maya Angelou). This collection also puts Angelou in the context of contemporary black women’s writing.