Maya Angelou (1928–2014)

There is a scene near the end of Old Goriot in which the young Rastignac, still new to Paris and Parisian society, observes that “[n]oble natures cannot dwell in this world.” In Balzac’s eponymous novel, Goriot, having literally given everything he owns to his selfish daughters, lies dying in a decrepit boardinghouse. Maya Angelou’s recent death sparked similar outpourings of noble reflection, tinged with regret, and emotion. Suddenly, in death, as Angelou takes leave of this “corrupt and venal world,” we endow her long and eventful life with majestic meaning.

Most people die unnoticed, but Angelou’s death reverberated across the continent and the media was momentarily filled with details of her life, hardships, and accomplishments. Identification by occupation is easiest, and she was variously described as a civil rights activist, political activist, memoirist, author, performer, and poet. Some outlets, such as the New York Times, candidly admitted that her poetry was far less accomplished and less important than her other writings and her actions. Yet the title “poet” was also uniformly applied.

What is a “poet” in this day and age? Thousands declare themselves poets and universities confer creative writing degrees as if poetry can be taught like woodworking. There are poetry conferences, awards, and magazines, poems in other publications, and the vast disorderly Internet has more “poetry” added daily. In short, poetry is still discussed, it is still in the public’s consciousness, though its prevalence and relevance may be minimal when compared to such other cultural phenomena as film or sports.

Let’s assume that we are all intrinsically poets, that what we utter in the shower or elevator is a heightened form of expression that may elicit a knowing response from anyone who is listening. One cannot be more democratic than that. And perhaps this leveling of poetic standards is the only present course for the art of poetry in this age of unmemorable (if not regrettable) verse. Just ask your spouse, your closest companion, or your colleagues at work if and when they last remember reading or hearing something that was labeled a contemporary American poem that was both lyrical and significant.

It is truly unfortunate that Maya Angelou has been denigrated to this level of collective poetic mediocrity. Selections from her well-known poems demonstrate not great poetry but a concerted effort to use language for a public purpose—declamations of anguish and individual liberty:

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.
(from Still I Rise)

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.
(from Phenomenal Woman)

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
(from I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings)

The annual BestAmerican Poetry compilation (whose poems are often equivalent to the random observations that one overhears on the subway) expends more pages upon biographical details than the actual poetry: so the reader will know who the poet is, where from, what personal event makes his or her poem worth reading. Cultural significance has replaced literary skill. We have become a nation of poets who grope for meaning through social connectivity.

How did Angelou transcend such limits? Is it fair to characterize Angelou as a black American woman poet, or is that an unintended consequence of the near-constant identification by race and gender—even sexual orientation—that permeates the arts and media?

Angelou is different because she embraced the public responsibility of an artist. Many will contend that her writings opened the path for black women writers. Some may suggest that her willingness to publicly embrace the breadth of her existence (wrought with trauma) is what made her voice universal.

But how did Angelou so effortlessly escape contemporary American poetry’s bargain basement: remnants resold for a pittance the next season when the writing academies fawn over their newest discovery or over the latest compendium of inconsequential writing? She did so because there is a sense of confidence that infuses the informality of her poetry. She may lack the precision and the concentration that one typically associates with well-wrought verse, yet she transcends the emphasis on the minor individual that lessens so much fashionable poetry. Angelou saw and wrote beyond the poetry establishment’s self-imposed boundaries.

That distinctiveness reinforces both Angelou’s and, by analogy, America’s greatness. Angelou’s loss is a universal loss because of what she did with words. And because she was a beacon in this nation: an individual who persevered and rose above the chum. This is, after all, the land of opportunity.

Angelou’s greatness in turn reinforces the inherent greatness of greater poetic works: poems that are lyrical, historical, singular, compelling, and memorable; poems that resonate in the general public’s consciousness with an immanence equivalent to America’s most meaningful and creative legal documents and declarations; and so far superior to what our casual poets annually trumpet.

Here, for example, is Phillis Wheatley, writing in the eighteenth century:

On Being Brought from Africa to America

’Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic dye.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

Though first published in London, Wheatley is often described as the first black American woman poet; but these words also resonate on their own, without the need for explication or biography. That is the national poetic legacy that Maya Angelou championed in her words and deeds, even though her poems are not intrinsically great.  

Eugene Schlanger, the Wall Street Poet, is the author of September 11 Wall Street Sonnets. He also practices law on Wall Street. His essay on the award of the 2012 T.S. Eliot Prize to Sharon Olds, an American, published last year in The University Bookman, will soon be republished in a collection of critical literary essays in the UK.