Book Review: The Poetry of Maya Angelou

First posted in November, 2004

I had lunch at Winter Haven this afternoon. As is my new habit, I chose a book from their shelves to entertain me while I ate alone. Today I read some Maya Angelou poetry.

I'd never been exposed to Angelou's work before, but I knew that she is a celebrated poet and that she wrote and recited a poem for Clinton's inauguration, and that she's an inspiration to many women and to the African American community, and so I figured it was about time I figured out what all the fuss was about.

It has been said that Angelou has the unique ability to shatter the opaque prisms of race and class between reader and subject throughout her books of poetry and her autobiographies.1 And to some extent she does do this with talent and flair. She writes from within her own experiences in a way that allows the reader a glimpse into her world, or the world of others with whom Angelou probably had some level of experience, at times without any concern for the reader's own world view. As a white middle-class woman, I am able to glimpse into the lure of the street to a black teenage male2 or the distrust an abused woman feels at the hands of her lover3. And this is a powerful thing to be able to do, and I can see how she's won acclaim for being able to do it so well.

And I gather that she's best known for her ability to empower those who have been repressed or who, for whatever reason, lack confidence. A great deal of her work in this area appears to be written for blacks, and, not being black, I can't say how effective her work in that area is, but she's also written a bit to empower women, and I can attest that sometimes she's very eloquent in this regard.4 And it's not always centered towards people with whom she can relate based upon her culture or race or ancestry or gender or age; occasionally it goes beyond all cultural boundaries to inspire5 or relate6 to anyone who might be reading. However, I think that sometimes when she's attempting to empower, she does it at the expense of bridging gaps7, and I'm not sure whether or not this is intentional.

She strikes me as the sort who would want all of us8 to be equals, yet often the tone smacks of accusation and a seeming desire for division. Some would say this is completely understandable; and I'd agree that this is to some degree understandable, particularly her early poetry, written closer in time/contemporary with the civil rights movement in the United States. But when she dwells on the concepts of slavery9 or British colonialism10 or other horrid incidents of oppression long since laid to rest11, well, I'm not advocating forgetting the past, and I'm not saying the past should be forgiven, but I am saying that I, as a human of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as a Caucasian, as a woman, as all the things to which I might be related or with which I might be grouped willingly or not, I am for coming together, and though my forefathers might have wrought these atrocities, I had no hand in them, and should not be blamed for them, and there's no place for accusations which serve to drive people apart rather than bring them together. Dwell upon our common good, upon what we share, and remove these boundaries between us. It's not always overt in her writing12, and I will grant you that this anthology I'm using13 might not be the sole publication upon which I should form an opinion of her work, but these are initial impressions, and if anyone thinks I'm taking her wrong, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

And I may well be taking her wrong. An excellent example of how I might is illustrated in the following two poems:

The Thirteens

Your Momma took to shouting
Your Poppa's gone to war,
Your sister's in the streets
Your brother's in the bar.
The thirteens. Right On.

Your cousin's taking smack
Your Uncle’s in the joint,
Your buddy's in the gutter
Shooting for his point
The thirteens. Right on.
And you, you make me sorry
You out here by yourself,
I'd call you something dirty,
But there just ain't nothing left,
The thirteens. Right On.
The Thirteens

Your Momma kissed the chauffer,
Your Poppa balled the cook,
Your sister did the dirty,
in the middle of the book,
The thirteens. Right On.

Your daughter wears a jock strap,
Your son he wears a bra
Your brother jonesed your cousin
in the back seat of the car.
The thirteens. Right On.

Your money thinks you're something
But if I'd learn to curse,
I'd tell you what your name is
But there just ain't nothing worse
The thirteens. Right On.

At first I really took offence to this (these) poem(s). "She's being rather stereotypical about my race," I thought, "and that's no better than having people stereotype about you. How does this bridge the divide to bring people together? What purpose does writing a separate poem for each race (as if there are but two) achieve?"

But then it occurred to me - perhaps these two poems are attempting to demonstrate the absurd stereotypes that exist regarding race and culture, to show that blacks can be as prejudiced as whites, and that it's just as evil as whites harboring unjustified preconceptions of blacks.

Then again, there's the consistent use of a capital letter for the B in 'Black' and the consistent lower case w in 'white.' And then there are poems like To a Suitor14. It's a rather stunning poem, really, with some powerful imagery of how love is, well, difficult to put into words, and that when it's felt, really felt, it makes us shine from within. But it also states quite clearly that the only suitor for her will be of her same race. Now, she's a poet, and poets write from the heart, and she may just have a more intense inclination toward others of her own race. I can relate to that; while I couldn't tell you that it was absolutely outside the realm of possibility that I might fall for someone who was of a different race (and I couldn't tell you that - I see beautiful, thoughtful, wonderful people everywhere I go, and I don't always go for the physical packaging; were that the case my former suitors would look like carbon copies of one another, and they aren't), I can tell you that, well, not only do I tend to go for people of my same race, but of my same hair color as well. There are certain physical features to which I am drawn, and those tend to be features found in my own race, though not exclusively so. So do I pass off To a Suitor as written merely for Angelou's own personal tastes, or is it a statement? And just precisely what does that statement say?

And in a similar vein, the same might be said of the divisiveness of which I spoke earlier. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, everyone is allowed to express emotion. Whether or not I agree with her feelings doesn't make them any less valid. If these are the emotions of a vast number of people, and it must be, given her following, then her voice has been heard as she hoped it would be. When that voice polarizes, if it polarizes, is it collecting people together to press them toward a noble cause? Or is it deepening the divide? A divide, I might add, that I for one had hoped was closing.

Now is again the time wherein I explain that I like what others would term "flowery" poetry: heavy on the visual imagery, heavy on the metaphor (not too heavy, mind you), talk about love, talk about nature, win my heart if you intertwine the two. And she's capable of that. There's some of her work that's extraordinarily smooth and vivid and visceral. About love of people, love of self, love of place, love of God. And she knows that she can do it. And I think she likes to do it. But I think she is under the impression that it lacks importance when compared with all the despair she sees in the world. Poetry for her is not a refuge, it's a place to make a stand. Against poverty, against oppression, against war, against a whole myriad of horrible things.

In short, there are several different faces to Angelou. She's aware of this, I think, as are her readers.

Some of these faces have a mission; sometimes it is achieved, sometimes it's achieved at a cost.

Some of these faces are willing to drown themselves in beauty, in emotion, in hope.

Some of these faces succeed in doing both simultaneously. And it is these final faces that I prefer, but they are few.

In closing, I give her the final word:

          Artful Pose
Of falling leaves and melting
snows, of birds
in their delights
Some poets sing
their melodies
tendering my nights

My pencil halts
and will not go
along that quiet path
I need to write
of lovers false

and hate
and hateful wrath

2An excerpt from
Letter to an
Aspiring Junkie
     The streets?
Climb into the streets man, like you climb
into the ass end of a lion.
Then it's fine.
It's a bug-a-loo and a shing-a-ling,
African dreams on a buck-and-a-wing and a prayer.
That's the streets man,
Nothing happening.
3An excerpt from
     One day they hold you in the
Palms of their hands, gentle, as if you
Were the last raw egg in the world. Then
They tighten up. Just a little. The
First squeeze is nice. A quick hug.
Soft into your defenselessness. A little
More. The hurt begins. Wrench out a
Smile that slides around the fear. When the
Air disappears,
Your mind pops, exploding fiercely, briefly,
Like the head of a kitchen match. Shattered.
It is your juice
That runs down their legs. Staining their shoes.
When the earth rights itself again,
And taste tries to return to the tongue,
Your body has slammed shut. Forever.
No keys exist.
4An excerpt from
     Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I'm telling lies.
I say,
It's in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.


Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can't touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them
They say they still can't see.
I say,
It's in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I'm a woman

Phenomenal woman,
That's me.
5Call Letters:
Mrs. V. B.
Sure I'll sail them.
Show me the boat,
If it'll float,
I'll sail it.

Yes, I'll love them.
If they've got the style,
To make me smile,
I'll love them.

'Course I'll live it.
Let me have breath,
Just to my death,
And I'll live it.

I'm not ashamed to tell it,
I never learned to spell it.
Not failure.
6Retrospect     Last year changed its seasons
subtly, stripped its sultry winds
for the reds of dying leaves, let
gelid drips of winter ice melt onto a
warming earth and urged the dormant
bulbs to brave the
pain of spring.

We, loving, above the whim of
time, did not notice.

Alone, I remember now.
7An excerpt from
On Working
White Liberals
     I'm afraid they'll have to prove first
that they'll watch the Black man move first
Then follow him with faith to kingdom come,
This rocky road is not paved for us,
So, I'll believe in Liberal's aid for us
When I see a white man load a Black man's gun.

8Regardless of all these aforementioned groupings which many call boundaries: gender, race, culture, age - in my opinion these should merely be 'groupings' or 'categories' and not 'boundaries,' for we all have common threads, things to share, things to learn from one another.

     After Eli Whitney's gin
brought to generations' end
bartered flesh and broken bones
Did it cleanse you of your sin
     Did you ponder?

Now, when farmers bury wheat
and the cow men dump the sweet
butter down on Davy Jones
Does it sanctify your street
          Do you wonder?

Or is guilt your nightly mare
bucking wake your evenings' share
of the stilled repair of groans
and the absence of despair
               over yonder?
10London     If I remember correctly,
London is a very queer place.
Mighty queer.
A million miles from
jungle, and the British
lion roads in the stone of
Trafalgar Square.
Mighty queer.
At least a condition
removed from Calcutta,
but old men in Islington and in
too-large sweaters dream
of the sunrise days
of the British Raj.
Awfully queer.
Centuries of hate divide St. George's
channel and the Gaels,
but plum-cheeked English boys drink
sweet tea and grow to fight
for their Queen.
Mighty queer.

11Not that there aren't other such atrocities presently afoot, of course, but I see no problem writing of those incidents contemporary with your work. That's where powerful impact can be made. Dwelling on slavery of African Americans in the United States achieves little in the present day, whereas a poem like this might have a chance to affect change:

  An excerpt from
These Yet to be
United States
     Why are you unhappy?
Why do your children cry?

They kneel alone in terror
with dread in every glance.
Their nights are threatened daily
by a grim in heritance.
You dwell in whitened castles
with deep and poisoned moats
and cannot hear the curses
which will your children's throats.

12It's not always overt in her writing, though sometimes it's beneath the surface and sometimes it's plain as day. I'm not trying to say she's always divisive, but that she is on more occasions than I cared for, at least in this anthology, and I don't think there's a place for that anymore. You don't bring people together by lumping them in groups, by telling them how they're different, how my fathers wronged your fathers. Embrace fully instead the ways in which we can come together and walk, side by side, into the future.
13The Poetry of Maya Angelou, copyright 1993, Book-of-the-Month Club, Inc.

14To a Suitor                              If you are Black and for me,
press steady, as the weight
of night. And I will show
cascades of brilliance, astrally.

If you are Black and constant,
descend importantly,
as ritual, and I will arch
a crescent moon, naturally.