Female poet of the month: Maya Angelou

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It’s hard to condense the life of Maya Angelou into one article. Her life encompassed a spectrum of experience: having a son aged 17, living rough in Mexico and Los Angeles, working as a nightclub singer and dancer, working with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, and being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom 2011 – to name a few. It is unsurprising that to encompass such a wealth of living, Angelou wrote seven autobiographies.

Her poetry and prose reflect the instability of her life, and the lives of African-Americans during a period of civil rights, with systemic racism as a constant, debilitating companion. In a political climate where the United States appears to be descending into intolerance and isolation, the words of Angelou could not be more relevant or powerful.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) is Angelou’s first memoir of her youth, her sexual trauma – when she was raped as a child by her mother’s boyfriend. He was convicted and imprisoned, and upon release was beaten to death. Angelou remained silent for five years believing she was responsible- ‘I decided my voice was so powerful it could kill people’.

she challenges the reader to embrace themselves for who they are

However, what the book provided was a symbol. A symbol of solidarity and endurance. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Angelou said how she received letters from men and women and that she now has the power and faith to say: ‘you can survive it’. Angelou helped open the path for communication, she created a space of safety and honesty within her writing which resonated, and resonates, with people.

And Still I Rise, Angelou’s third volume of poetry, details the strength of the human, especially of the female spirit. Phenomenal Woman appears in the first section Touch Me, Life, Not Softly that speaks to the brutal truths of life. Phenomenal Woman is one that celebrates beauty – the beauty of simply existing, the beauty of self-acceptance and joy. The speaker is ‘not built to fit a fashion model’s size’, this is inconsequential, size and conformity do not dictate beauty – you do. Angelou dares us to accept ourselves in a climate which screams ‘you are not enough.’ The use of first person forces women to acknowledge their power, their self-worth as they read it – ‘Phenomenal woman/That’s me’. Angelou reaches beyond the page, affecting change as she challenges the reader to embrace themselves for who they are, rather than who they ‘should be’.

combining the past to look at a better future

Angelou writes how she feels, how she remembers, combining the past to look at a better future. Still I Rise epitomizes this vision. The speaker transcends the constraints of history, prejudice, hate, rising into the ‘daybreak that’s wondrously clear’, symbolizing a future of equality. Here the lyricism of power, inherent to Phenomenal Woman, extends itself beyond the bounds of the mortal world. Angelou’s mantra ‘I rise’ suggests the need to inhabit a plane of existence beyond normal living; she speaks to a spiritual and physical transcendence.

Her poetry is an emblem of hope and resilience against evil

The speaker takes ownership of her sexuality, her race, and her strength as she ascends ‘Just like the moons and like suns’ to a space of existence, which is not dictated by the narrow mind. Angelou creates space in her poetry for thought and progress, never does she give one identifiable truth but asks of the reader – what are we rising to? What do we need to be better than? How do we conquer our fear?

Maya Angelou advocates endurance and strength, but most importantly her words are ones of hope. Her voice, like the ‘black ocean’, is strong, beautiful, unyielding, and nourishing. Her poetry is an emblem of hope and resilience against evil, however it may manifest. It is a message which resonates with many people who face evil today.

Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

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