Why We Need Maya Angelou More Than Ever

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

National Journal
Lucia Graves
Add to Briefcase
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.

What We're Following See More »
DIAGNOSED WITH BRAIN CANCER LAST WEEK
McCain Returning for Health Care Vote
4 hours ago
THE LATEST
BUT IS HE A YES VOTE?
Cornyn Attempting to Get McCain Back for Health Vote
9 hours ago
THE LATEST
“TIME HAD RUN OUT” FOR ILL BABY
Charlie Gard’s Parents End Legal Fight
10 hours ago
THE LATEST

"A lawyer representing Chris Gard and Connie Yates told the High Court 'time had run out' for the baby. Mr. Gard said it meant his 'sweet, gorgeous, innocent little boy' will not reach his first birthday on 4 August. 'To let our beautiful little Charlie go' is 'the hardest thing we'll ever have to do,' his mother said. Charlie's parents said they made the decision because a US doctor had told them it was now too late to give Charlie nucleoside therapy.

Source:
AGENCY SOUGHT TO DELAY IMPLEMENTATION
11 States Sue EPA Over Chemical Rule
10 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"Eleven states have sued the Environmental Protection Agency over its June decision to delay implementation of a chemical safety rule" until 2019. "The state attorneys general, led by New York’s Eric Schneiderman (D), argue the rule is important for 'protecting our workers, first-responders and communities from chemical accidents' and should be allowed to take affect as planned by the Obama administration’s EPA.

Source:
ULTIMATUM ON ACA
Trump: You’re With Us Or Against Us
10 hours ago
THE LATEST
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login