Why We Need Maya Angelou More Than Ever

While Angelou was praised, today’s poets are mocked.

National Journal
Lucia Graves
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Lucia Graves
May 28, 2014, 1:13 p.m.

By now you prob­ably know that Maya An­gelou, one of Amer­ica’s most be­loved po­ets, died Wed­nes­day.

The New York Times has chron­icled her life as the “lyr­ic­al wit­ness” to the Jim Crow South. Moth­er Jones has dis­tilled some of her “time­less wis­dom.” And her read­ing at Bill Clin­ton’s 1993 in­aug­ur­a­tion has been parsed for per­son­al mean­ing.

The irony is that if she’d giv­en that in­aug­ur­al read­ing today, she likely would have been snarked at and dis­missed by the dom­in­ant voices in me­dia, as Richard Blanco was after Obama’s second in­aug­ur­a­tion last year when the poet be­came the first Latino and the first openly gay in­aug­ur­al poet to read in our na­tion’s his­tory.

“Po­etry: I don’t get it. Nev­er have,” tweeted one prom­in­ent Wash­ing­ton Post writer dur­ing the speech. “What’s this dude talk­ing about?” snarked an­oth­er at Politico. Cord Jef­fer­son, writ­ing for Gawker at the time, cap­tured the pre­vail­ing sen­ti­ment. It roughly trans­lated to: Get this poet guy away from the mi­cro­phone.

Even (or maybe es­pe­cially) Steph­en Col­bert took a shot at Blanco. “Of course, folks, be­ing Demo­crats, there leg­ally had to be a lib­er­al, gay Latino poet from Maine,” he quipped at the time. Then, after show­ing foot­age of Blanco’s per­form­ance, he ad­ded: “Would it kill you to throw a rhyme in there? It’s a poem. It’s not that hard.”

The lar­ger theme is the dis­place­ment of earn­est­ness by irony in Amer­ic­an me­dia — es­pe­cially on the In­ter­net. It’s a sen­ti­ment that pred­ates 21st cen­tury Amer­ica, and one An­gelou struggled with even when she gave her speech at Clin­ton’s in­aug­ur­a­tion back in the 1990s. “Po­etry is the strongest lan­guage we have,” she told the Los Angeles Times of her in­aug­ur­al speech at the time. “Un­for­tu­nately, it has fallen on dis­fa­vor, and so a num­ber of people got the er­ro­neous idea that po­etry was nerd talk — that it was evid­ence of weak­ness. The truth is po­etry shows the hu­man be­ing at her/his strongest; at her/his best.”

If you needed any evid­ence, the out­cry over her death un­der­scores this point: The joke’s on the people who can’t ap­pre­ci­ate a poem. What fol­lows are ex­cerpts from some of her finest.

From her Clin­ton in­aug­ur­al speech:

Here on the pulse of this new day

You may have the grace to look up and out

And in­to your sis­ter’s eyes,

In­to your broth­er’s face, your coun­try

And say simply

Very simply

With hope

Good morn­ing.

From And Still I Rise:

You may write me down in his­tory

With your bit­ter, twis­ted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassi­ness up­set you?

Why are you be­set with gloom?

‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells

Pump­ing in my liv­ing room.

Just like moons and like suns,

With the cer­tainty of tides,

Just like hopes spring­ing high,

Still I’ll rise.

From When Great Trees Fall:

When great trees fall,

rocks on dis­tant hills shud­der,

lions hunker down in tall grasses,

and even ele­phants

lum­ber after safety.

When great trees fall in forests,

small things re­coil in­to si­lence,

their senses

eroded bey­ond fear.

When great souls die,

the air around us be­comes

light, rare, sterile.

We breathe, briefly.

Our eyes, briefly,

see with a hurt­ful clar­ity.

Our memory, sud­denly sharpened,

ex­am­ines,

gnaws on kind words

un­said,

prom­ised walks

nev­er taken.

From Phe­nom­en­al Wo­man:

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

Phe­nom­en­ally.

Phe­nom­en­al wo­man,

That’s me.

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