By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was not just a poet, of course: she was an influential civil rights campaigner in the United States, and her autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, is a classic of the genre. But several of her poems are well-known, and she was popular as a poet during her lifetime and a couple of the poems that follow, at the very least, remain famous.
Below, we’ve picked some of Maya Angelou’s very best poems, as a ‘way in’ to her work.
‘Still I Rise’.
This wonderfully self-assertive poem about picking yourself up and striving to achieve, even in the face of adversity, was used for an advertising campaign by the UNCF in the US, but its message of selfhood and determination is one that should be heard by all.
A kind of protest poem which is defiant as well as celebratory, ‘Still I Rise’ is about the power of the human spirit to overcome discrimination and hardship, with Angelou specifically reflecting her attitudes as a black American woman. Maya Angelou’s work, both her poetry and her autobiographies, is about the importance of not being defeated by the obstacles and challenges life throws at you.
When ‘you’ here denotes an African-American woman who grew up with more than her fair share of hardship, the message of her poems becomes even more rousing: Angelou had known what it was to struggle. It’s the perfect place to begin exploring Angelou’s poetry – and the ideal poem to head our selection of her five must-read poems.
Being a ‘phenomenal woman’ is not about being a certain size, or a particular shape. It’s about how you carry yourself, and how you behave. As with several other poems on this list of Maya Angelou poems, ‘Phenomenal Woman’ is about being unbowed, about holding one’s head high and being proud of who one is.
This poem, contrasting the free bird with the caged bird, perhaps owes a debt to William Blake: Angelou’s reference to a ‘bird that stalks / down his narrow cage / can seldom see through / his bars of rage’ evokes Blake’s famous couplet ‘A Robin Redbreast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage.’
But the more immediate link is with Angelou’s own work, and her 1969 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The free bird has no need of song, but the caged bird sings because it is not free.
There are obvious parallels here between African American women in the United States and white American women, but Angelou does not reduce her poem to such a straightforward equivalence. Instead, it can be read as a poem about freedom and isolation in more general terms (although personally we think it benefits from having its specific context borne in mind).
This earns its place on our list of Maya Angelou’s best poems because of its historic importance as much as its literary merits (the poem received mixed reviews from critics): Angelou recited this poem at the inauguration of US President Bill Clinton in January 1993.
This made Angelou only the second poet ever to read a poem at a presidential inauguration (the first had been Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961) and the first woman to do so (and the first African American).
Here we have another Angelou poem in which the individual speaker represents all African-American people. In this rousing poem which addresses racial discrimination, Angelou equates the struggle for equality – specifically, racial equality – with the struggle for freedom.
The poem concludes with the image of an insistent drumbeat which marks the rhythm of social change which the speaker and others involved in civil rights have established.
This is a poem about returning home. The subject of the poem is a girl who goes home to her mother’s arms, afraid and ‘creeping’ because she fears she is in trouble.
Yet Angelou tells us that the girl in the poem is ‘blameless’, inviting us to read the poem as about ‘mothers’ and ‘daughters’ in a wider sense: it is about the generational shift between African-American women of Angelou’s mother’s age, and those of Angelou’s own generation.
Many of Maya Angelou’s best-known poems focus on the plight of women, and specifically Black women. Another important strand to her work is work itself: a focus on the daily menial tasks which many wives and mothers have to carry out around the home as part of their domestic duties.
This poem is perhaps the best example of this theme in Angelou’s poetry. The speaker is such a woman, who nevertheless finds something to call her ‘own’ when she looks to the sun, the rain, the oceans, and the mountains: nature’s bounty.
Here’s another poem in which racial inequality is tied to freedom, although poverty is another salient theme of the poem. The references to food being gone and rent being due suggest that life is a constant struggle for the Black Americans depicted in the poem, which takes its title from a prominent African-American district in New York.
Playing on the name of her home country, Angelou invites us to reflect on the divisive nature of the ‘United’ States of America – a country in which racial and socio-economic divisions loom large.
Angelou refers to some of the great ‘achievements’ of America, from the Telstar satellite to the atomic bomb. Can a country capable of such technological inventions not also heal itself of its social division?
A poem about overcoming fear and not allowing it to master you, ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’ is the perfect poem to conclude this pick of Maya Angelou’s best poems: a powerful declaration of self-belief and the importance of facing one’s fears.
Angelou lists a number of things, from barking dogs to grotesque fairy tales in the Mother Goose tradition, but comes back to her mantra: ‘Life doesn’t frighten me at all’. We’re especially fond of Angelou’s image of walking the ocean floor and never having to breathe.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.