Maya Angelou’s best poems, selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
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 five 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. 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.
‘Phenomenal Woman’. 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.
‘Caged Bird’. 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).
‘On the Pulse of Morning’. 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).
‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’. 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.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.