On Maya Angelou's Collected Poetry

I don’t really know how to read poetry. My dad is an English teacher but I don’t recall him reading an awful lot of poetry when I was young. He read to us from When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six – I don’t remember much except the tale of “Bad Sir Brian Botany” and his “blipping on the head.” “I am sir Brian!” (ting ling) I know there is a large volume of William Carlos Williams on the huge bookshelf in the living room, but that’s only because I remember thinking his name was funny. We used to watch Cool Runnings at my neighbor’s house and one of the actors was named Doug E. Doug. I don’t think I ever saw my dad read Williams.

None of this to say that he didn’t read much poetry, but rather that I didn’t see him with the books in his hands. I never saw him read Nietzsche, but philosophy is definitely an odd area of expertise. I never saw him read Milton, but Paradise Regained was the subject of his senior thesis in college.

Shakespeare is a major exception to my observation. He read Shakespeare religiously, took us to see performances, read excerpts aloud, taught it in his classes, helped when his schools produced the plays. A great portion of Shakespeare is written in “verse” but I don’t recall him reading the sonnets so I’m not sure it’s the sort of “poetry” of which I’m thinking.

I imitated the reading habits I saw, superficially but to a “t.” I have a pretty serious casual interest in philosophy and spent considerable time with Camus. Dad thumbed constantly through books of essays, and I do too. I bought the same edition of his Orwell and Didion collections and he gave me copies of his Mencken and Liebling because he had duplicates of both. I went through a lengthy Paul Auster kick at his urging and he bought The Fire Next Time for me and put it in my hands while we were walking with my sister through Williamsburg. “Read it.” I don’t read a lot of poetry.

I went to a friend’s wedding recently and the maid of honor quoted Sylvia Plath and Jane Kenyon so I decided to check it out. I bought the work of some young poets – Clint Smith and Hanif Aburraqib – along with Plath, Kenyon, Wallace Stevens, and Walt Whitman. The last one I picked up from The Strand, and the first one I read from cover to cover, was the collected poetry of Maya Angelou.

We often mold people into convenient shapes and Angelou is a comfortable shape; an orb, smooth and without inconsistencies or corners. The Maya Angelou I read was vulnerable, resilient, and rhythmic, but also radical.

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.

She’s become larger than her work for verses like those, for her Caged Birds and dust still rising. It’s fascinating how this happens to writers, how something they create can vault them into a specific and unusual prominence that supersedes the words on the page. George Orwell’s 1984 made his name into an adjective and Margaret Atwood is a cultural force that extends far beyond her intricate tapestry of dystopia, terror, and allegory. Maya Angelou is a monument to empowerment and source of inspiration for women and people of color, an oracle for the rest of America. But when we read the massive sea of pages in context, it often reveals something different.

There are signposts that stick up, cultural windmills amid the corn. The little hills and pathways through the green, irrelevant against the tower, are so easy to miss, but that’s where we can learn the landscape. Writers spend most of their time there – Orwell’s preoccupation with Dickens and the fiction and poetry of his contemporaries, Atwood’s wicked humor and prickly imagination. They feel the dirt and bend the stalks and learn the shape of the ground; discover canyons, pick up rocks, and feel the weight of wind on their shoulders. Writers don’t build the gargantuan, they leave that to others. They weave around and carve out space for the personal – interests, love, fatigue, anguish, family, humor, ancestors, and children.

Maya Angelou writes about family and about lovers, the way that her body ages and her mind sharpens, the people in her life and the people she longs for. It’s all really quite personal. I don’t think the larger than life can exist without the intricate, intimate, and impossibly small. Maya Angelou explores herself and her own feelings and morality. Only with that knowledge can she assemble the kinds of words upon which others build towers. But she lives off the land.