Maya Angelou and the Public Life of Poetry

Published: May 30th, 2014

Category: Blog

This week’s passing of Maya Angelou—a woman with gravitas and grit—brought forth a new kind of poetry community on social media. When poets take on an afterlife in their writing, they usually do so for the usual suspects: writers, teachers, book lovers, NPR listeners. Becoming that perpetual “way of happening” that Auden envisioned in his Yeats elegy, the poet transformed into text circulates in a coterie crowd. Not so with Angelou.

I’ve seen nothing quite like the Facebook forum that ignited when the news of Angelou’s death became public. Posts appeared from teachers and students, attorneys and administrative assistants, singers and scientists. A graduate student recalled how Angelou’s writing connected her with her mother, called her to be a writer. An attorney confessed that reciting “Phenomenal Woman” fortifies her for difficult court cases. An English teacher claimed that Angelou compelled him toward his profession. For music teachers, Angelou’s vital words were these: “Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.” Spiritual guides posted lines from “Still I Rise,” and this video of Angelou performing the poem went viral. People posted images from her line of greeting cards, stretching the Hallmark moment toward timelessness.

Maya Angelou at Clinton's inauguration

Maya Angelou at Clinton’s inauguration

Angelou generated this wide afterlife, I think, because she spoke with a singular and compelling authority. For the ancient Greeks, poets were authorized by the Muses, endorsed by divinity. Angelou was poet and Muse. For the Romantics, the poets were the populace’s “unacknowleged” legislators (as Shelley claimed). But this activist-ambassador addressed her nation at President Clinton’s 1993 inauguration—reactivating a public role for poets that had lain dormant since Robert Frost read for John F. Kennedy. For the American confessional poets, authority came from individual suffering, from the truth of their lived experience. But the pain in Angelou’s writing was collective as well as personal—the same dynamic that hardwires the power in her poetry. We find both in her inaugural poem, “On the Pulse of Morning”:

Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.

The last three lines of this passage resounded on Facebook this week, accompanied by images as diverse as the populace that Angelou recalls and summons in her poem. Her modernist predecessor Wallace Stevens believed that poetry should “help people to live their lives.” For a people’s poet like Angelou, this means everybody, every day. –MB

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