Maya Angelou 101
Maya Angelou had a broad and distinguished career both inside and outside the literary realm. She is most famous for her work as a poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist, working with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. She also worked in entertainment, as a singer, a dancer, an actor, and a director. Her poetry was inspired and informed by her life and work, and this personal connection often made her poems profound and powerful. Over the course of a career spanning the 1960s to her death in 2014, she captured, provoked, inspired, and ultimately transformed American people and culture. The following eight poems—presented chronologically from her earliest publication to the public poem she read at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration—showcase Angelou’s poetics.
“The Mothering Blackness”
With a firm root in African American history, many of Angelou’s poems, such as this one, can be traced to the work songs slaves sang. The repeating lines give the sense of a refrain, and varying line lengths and numbers of syllables give an improvised feel. Songs passed down orally, such as work songs, are often narratives: this poem tells the story of a girl running back to “the mothering blackness.” The regularly indented lines also give the impression that at least two voices are speaking, which would have been the case in work songs that were almost always sung by a collective.
In this poem, Angelou turns the struggle for survival in Harlem into a rhythmic activity: “Food is gone, the rent is due, / Curse and cry and then jump two.” Although referring to playing hopscotch, her poem is as much about the power of rhythm in language. Mimicking popular playground songs (“One, two, buckle my shoe”), “Harlem Hopscotch” utilizes a steady “abab” rhyme scheme and seven syllable line to show the everyday hardships of many in the neighborhood. Angelou used rhyme in her own life to overcome great struggles: when she was eight years old, her mother’s boyfriend raped her and was killed shortly after. Angelou thought her voice had killed the man and became mute for five years. During that time, she read and memorized poetry by Edgar Allan Poe, Anne Spencer, and Frances Harper, all of whom later influenced her writing.
Angelou has written that when she uses the pronoun I, she is referring to a collective we. In “Kin,” it’s clear to see that her narrator speaks for a larger human experience. The poem, which is dedicated to her brother, is a dramatic monologue with short, unrhymed lines. It takes familial closeness as its theme, with the shared memories and shared suffering that come with being part of a group. The narrator also associates herself with three powerful females in human history and, in doing so, speaks to and for the people.
The title of a collection and one of Angelou’s most famous poems, “Phenomenal Woman” celebrates black beauty and female strength. It’s a poem of power: when the narrator walks into a room, “The fellows stand or / Fall down on their knees.” This poem, with its expanding lines wrapped around a two-word refrain, suggests that the woman’s physical presence—her hips, step, eyes, teeth, waist, and feet—makes her powerful but also commends her “inner mystery.” Written in the 1970s toward the end of the Black Arts Movement, this celebration of black beauty confronts traditional white structures of “fashion models” and “pretty women” and replaces them with the confident narrator of “Phenomenal Woman.”
How does one inspire change in the face of stunning indifference? “Agile poppies” face off against “old manors” as the tension between the apathy of history and the vitality of the human spirit is explored. Even Angelou’s language takes part, shifting from her usual everyday speech to Latinate words such as fulminant, antiquitous, gelid, and the made-up word phantasmatalities. By presenting a battle between the sun and the mountains, this struggle becomes silent and daily, much like the day-to-day conflicts that Civil Rights activists encountered. The final image—a sun at the base of a mountain—is hopeful, suggesting that the sun will continue to rise, at least until it goes down for the day and the battle begins again.
“A Plagued Journey”
The theme of struggle and submission reoccurs throughout Angelou’s poetry, here without exception. This narrator is utterly passive, even in the face of the personified Hope. Eventually a personified Gloom “sucks the strands” of the speaker’s hair and “forgives [her] heady / fling with Hope.” Turning these abstract feelings into greedy and arrogant figures allows Angelou to portray the narrator’s helplessness to respond in any way besides submission.
The caged bird serves as Angelou’s signature image, frequenting her most famous autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1979). The image is not hers originally: it’s taken from Paul Laurence Dunbar, a popular early-20th-century African American writer and another of Angelou’s influences. This poem can be read in relation to “Sympathy,” in which Dunbar describes the caged bird, a symbol for a chained slave, beating his bruised and bloody wings. Angelou revises “Sympathy” by portraying a free bird beside a caged bird. Rhyme builds throughout the poem—the first stanza is unrhymed, and only two lines rhyme in the second, but the third (the chorus) features repeated “-ill” sounds mocking birdsong.
From “On the Pulse of Morning”
When Angelou read this poem at President Clinton’s first inauguration, she became the second poet to read a poem at a presidential inauguration and the first woman and African American to do so. At this point in her career, she had achieved great success as a spokeswoman, a writer, and an activist. This poem depicts a country on the brink of change and insists “You … have crouched too long in / The bruising darkness / Have lain too long / Facedown in ignorance, / Your mouths spilling words / Armed for slaughter.” Angelou calls for peace, harmony, and social justice for all of the marginalized in this poem and during the rest of her remarkable career.