Arts & Culture · Poetry

Poetry Sunday: Good-bye, Maya


In 1993, the first female inaugural poet stepped to the microphone at the swearing-in ceremony for William J. Clinton. It had been 32 years since any poet had read at a swearing-in, and the last, Robert Frost, was as white and male as the American hierarchy of poetry itself. (And let it be noted that while Jimmy Carter included a poet in his inaugural celebration, having him read at one of the galas after the actual ceremony, it was another white male—James Dickey—to whom he turned.)

On the day Maya Angelou read “On The Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, she was 64 years old. She’d been raped at the age of 7 and gone silent for 5 years after learning that after the reporting of the attack her assailant had been killed (she later said that she had feared her voice could kill people). She’d written an impossibly popular autobiography called I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and found her true voice as a poet, being nominated for the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for her first book of poems, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie.

At the time of her death, Ms. Angelou had written more than 30 books, 7 of them memoirs. She wrote the drama Georgia, Georgia in 1972—becoming the first African-American woman to have her screenplay produced. It too was nominated for a Pulitzer. She earned a Tony Award nomination for her role in the play Look Away (1973), and an Emmy Award nomination for her work on the television miniseries Roots (1977), among other honors.

She was a black woman who was, above all, authentic and no less powerful because of it. She did not court critical acclaim and sometimes sacrificed it in favor of writing plain-spoken encouragement to those who rarely went to books for it.

She was an activist. She was a teacher. Her life was hard poetry, and her poetry was a facet of her triumph over hardship.

A poet passed away last week. She stood for poetry in the minds of many. Here is one of her finest moments.

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