The news has spread to you, I’m sure, concerning the death of Maya Angelou. Her life and her poetry changed our society. She shaped her ideas into words, spoke them aloud, and fought for them courageously, inspiring generations of poets to dare to hope that their thoughts might also reach so many hearts and affect the course of a nation. Maya Angelou kindled flames that will not be tempered by her death.
She was not, however, born into this world with those words and thoughts set firmly in place. No, she gathered them throughout her life, gleaning inspiration from other great artists before her.
I imagine Maya Angelou approaching the Pearly Gates with a crowd of writers and poets to meet her. Heck–I’m sure she has a pass into the RIP/VIP writers club in the clouds somewhere. Who, though, would she be most excited to meet from the generations of great writers before her? Whose words did she hold like a beacon throughout her life, just as so many treasure hers?
As a black girl in Stamps, Alabama, in the 1930s, Maya Angelou was well acquainted with racism. She began to cling to literature at a young age, treasuring the escape from an ugly reality. She read every book in the Stamps library, and eventually ran across the poetry of William Shakespeare.
“…she thought that the author of ‘Sonnet 29’ must have been a black girl because its solemn words expressed so fiercely what she—an outcast, the victim of racism, destitution, and childhood sexual abuse, crying out alone before a deaf heaven—felt inside:”3
When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least.
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
“During these years in Stamps, I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare. He was my first white love. Although I enjoyed and respected Kipling, Poe, Butler, Thackeray and Henley, I saved my young and loyal passion for Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. Du Bois’ “Litany at Atlanta.” But it was Shakespeare who said, “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.” It was a state with which I felt myself most familiar.”5
Shakespeare’s words comforted and inspired the young Maya Angelou, and his work greatly influenced the content of the poetry she would write later in life. Shakespeare’s poetry identifies with suffering, with the marginalized, themes that dominated Angelou’s own artistic endeavors.
Like Shakespeare’s plays, Angelou wrote poems that were destined for the stage and were more powerful when spoken. Robert Loomis, Angelou’s longtime editor, noted that she wrote poetry that could “be read aloud and even acted. When her words are spoken, they are extremely effective and moving.”4
Maya also admired Shakespeare’s rhythm, saying, “When I read Shakespeare and heard that music I could not believe that a white man could write so musically.”4
PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR
Amidst the harsh reality of the civil rights movement and the turbulence of adolescence, Maya Angelou managed to find comfort in the words of various African American writers, particularly Paul Laurence Dunbar.
“When you are put down by the larger society and there’s a poet who compares the color of your skin to chocolate and brown sugar, you fall for it, because you need it. Paul Laurence Dunbar — who was one of the great poets of the 19th and 20th centuries — wrote about African-Americans, and he showed me the beauty of our colors and the wonder of our music.”1
In fact, the title of Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is from a line in Dunbar’s lyric poem entitled “Sympathy.”
I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals –
I know what the caged bird feels!
I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting –
I know why he beats his wing!
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore, –
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings!
His work fueled her ambitions to become a writer. He also seemed to share her fascination with the sound of language, writing in both Standardized English and African-American English. Dunbar became known for mixing dialectic verse into his poetry, creating “tension between the literary form and the live performance (not only of the poem but of the language itself).”8 This relationship between poetry and performance was of interest to Maya Angelou, as was the politically charged nature of using African-American English in poetry during the civil rights movement.
“Black English is reviled by the conservative mainstream as deformed English and celebrated by Afrocentrics as the mother tongue. What’s sanctified as ordinary for one group is derided as spurious by the other. The very ordinariness of black English is what makes it seem of self-evident value to its speakers (and rightly so), but this ordinariness is a red herring to conservatives because it is not ordinary to them. The problem is that there is no one ordinary language, but many ordinary languages. And all languages are social constructions—black English as much as standard English.”8
EDGAR ALLAN POE
Edgar Allan Poe was another white poet that struck a chord with the young Maya Angelou: “I loved him so much I called him EAP. “2 She particularly admired his rhythm4, and Angelou’s poetry shares that sense of musicality.
“I love Edgar Allan Poe. I didn’t speak for almost six years when I was a young girl, and so I memorized Poe. I thought ‘The Raven’ and his other poems sounded pretty much like rap because of the internal rhyme. When I was about 14, I heard Gregory Peck read ‘The Raven,’ but he read it without syncopation. I said out loud, ‘That’s not the way that poem goes!’ And the usher invited me out of the theater.”7
Maya Angelou was impressed by Dickens’ work early in life, and A Tale of Two Cities held a particular place in her heart. She describes how hearing the book read aloud for the first time revealed what a difference a voice can make:
“I had read A Tale of Two Cities and found it up to my standards as a romantic novel. She opened the first page and I heard poetry for the first time in my life…her voice slid in and curved down through and over the words. She was nearly singing.”5
Maya Angelou reads much of her poetry aloud and has even received three Grammys for her spoken word albums. “Poetry,” she said, “is music written for the human voice and it really needs to be read aloud.”6
She also appreciated the content of Dickens’ works, his characters animating the depth of their author’s grasp on poverty and marginalization. “I grew up in the South, in a little village in Arkansas, and the whites in my town were really mean, and rude. Dickens, I could tell, wouldn’t be a man who would curse me out and talk to me rudely.”1
There are so many more writers than influenced he work, to be sure, particularly African American poets such as Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, and W.E.B. Du Bois. She has even mentioned admiring women such as Emily Dickinson and Dorothy Parker. However, the four I listed above appear over and over again in interviews and critiques. It is especially wonderful to me that, despite her life being wrapped and bound tightly to a world of racism and abuse, she looked to literature with a colorblind heart. Yes, prevalent themes in her work include suffering and civil rights, but at its core she seems to say that we are more alike than unalike.
“I write about the black experience, because it’s what I know. But I’m always talking about the human condition, what human beings feel and how we feel.”4
1. “Maya Angelou’s 6 Favorite Books.” The Week. April 6, 2013. Accessed June 02, 2014. http://theweek.com/article/index/242195/maya-angelous-6-favorite-books#axzz337LJclKW.
2. Plimpton, George . “Maya Angelou, The Art of Fiction, No. 119.” The Paris Review, No. 116 (Fall 1990). http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2279/the-art-of-fiction-no-119-maya-angelou
3. Prior, Karen Swallow. “What Maya Angelou Means When She Says ‘Shakespeare Must Be a Black Girl'” The Atlantic. January 30, 2013. Accessed June 02, 2014. http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/01/what-maya-angelou-means-when-she-says-shakespeare-must-be-a-black-girl/272667/.
4. Cox, Vicki, and Miles Shapiro. Maya Angelou. Infobase Publishing, 2009.
5. Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Random House, 1969.
6. “Maya Angelou.” Howl (Deltona High School). February 26, 2014. Accessed June 02, 2014. http://www.deltonahowl.com/maya-angelou.html.
7. Murphy, Kate. “Maya Angelou.” The New York Times. April 20, 2013. Accessed June 02, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/21/opinion/sunday/a-chat-with-maya-angelou.html.
8. Bernstein, Charles. “The Art and Practice of the Ordinary.” Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions. University of Chicago Press, 2011.
9. Hagen, Lyman B. Heart of a Woman, Mind of a Writer, and Soul of a Poet: A Critical Analysis of the Writings of Maya Angelou. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1996.