Poetry Friday: Maya Angelou

Poetry Friday: Maya Angelou

Poetry Friday: Maya Angelou

I'm writing this post from the Knoxville Convention Center, waiting for Social Slam to start. Spring has definitely arrived here in Knoxville: magnolias are blooming, despite the early morning chill. It's already looking to be a great day of networking and learning, but that's not the purpose of this post.

Yesterday was Maya Angelou's birthday. The acclaimed poet and autobiographer turned 85.  

She's had a rich and varied career: singer, dancer, actress, composer, director (the first female black director in Hollywood), prostitute, but she's most recognized and celebrated for her contributions as an essayist, poet and civil rights activist. Over the course of her career spanning more than fifty years, she has published six autobiographies, five books of essays, several books of poetry and holds over thirty honorary doctoral degrees. Since 1982, she has taught at Wake Forest University where she holds the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies. 

Beginning with her most famous work I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (1969), Angelou has followed the same writing ritual for years: she would wake early and check into a hotel where the staff was then instructed to removed any photographs from the walls. She writes exclusively on legal pads --  a bottle of sherry, a deck of cards, Roget's Thesaurus, and the Bible her only companions.  She will produce an average of ten to twelve pages of written material per day, editing it down to three or four pages later that evening. This laborious writing process documented in Carol Sarler's Conversations with Maya Angelou

In one of I Know Why the Caged Birds Sings' most controversial and emotional scenes, Angelou describes her rape at the hand of her mother's boyfriend. She was seven. Following the incident (and the subsequent murder of the man by her uncles), Angelou became mute for a period of five years, and escaped into literature, reading the works of Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois, Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe. The poet was born. 

Caged Bird

A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind   
and floats downstream   
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and   
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings   
with a fearful trill   
of things unknown   
but longed for still   
and his tune is heard   
on the distant hill   
for the caged bird   
sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams   
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream   
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied   
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings   
with a fearful trill   
of things unknown   
but longed for still   
and his tune is heard   
on the distant hill   
for the caged bird   
sings of freedom.

Maya Angelou, “Caged Bird” from Shaker, Why Don't You Sing? Copyright © 1983 by Maya Angelou. Used by permission of Random House, Inc.

Source: The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (Random House Inc., 1994)

(c) 2013 Jason Konopinski/JMK Media