Why We Need Maya Angelou More Than Ever

While Angelou was praised, today's poets are mocked.

National Journal

By now you probably know that Maya Angelou, one of America's most beloved poets, died Wednesday.

The New York Times has chronicled her life as the "lyrical witness" to the Jim Crow South. Mother Jones has distilled some of her "timeless wisdom." And her reading at Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration has been parsed for personal meaning.

The irony is that if she'd given that inaugural reading today, she likely would have been snarked at and dismissed by the dominant voices in media, as Richard Blanco was after Obama's second inauguration last year when the poet became the first Latino and the first openly gay inaugural poet to read in our nation's history.

"Poetry: I don't get it. Never have," tweeted one prominent Washington Post writer during the speech. "What's this dude talking about?" snarked another at Politico. Cord Jefferson, writing for Gawker at the time, captured the prevailing sentiment. It roughly translated to: Get this poet guy away from the microphone.

Even (or maybe especially) Stephen Colbert took a shot at Blanco. "Of course, folks, being Democrats, there legally had to be a liberal, gay Latino poet from Maine," he quipped at the time. Then, after showing footage of Blanco's performance, he added: "Would it kill you to throw a rhyme in there? It's a poem. It's not that hard."

The larger theme is the displacement of earnestness by irony in American media — especially on the Internet. It's a sentiment that predates 21st century America, and one Angelou struggled with even when she gave her speech at Clinton's inauguration back in the 1990s. "Poetry is the strongest language we have," she told the Los Angeles Times of her inaugural speech at the time. "Unfortunately, it has fallen on disfavor, and so a number of people got the erroneous idea that poetry was nerd talk — that it was evidence of weakness. The truth is poetry shows the human being at her/his strongest; at her/his best."

If you needed any evidence, the outcry over her death underscores this point: The joke's on the people who can't appreciate a poem. What follows are excerpts from some of her finest.

From her Clinton inaugural speech:

Here on the pulse of this new day

You may have the grace to look up and out

And into your sister's eyes,

Into your brother's face, your country

And say simply

Very simply

With hope

Good morning.

From And Still I Rise:

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?

Why are you beset with gloom?

'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells

Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I'll rise.

From When Great Trees Fall:

When great trees fall,

rocks on distant hills shudder,

lions hunker down in tall grasses,

and even elephants

lumber after safety.

When great trees fall in forests,

small things recoil into silence,

their senses

eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,

the air around us becomes

light, rare, sterile.

We breathe, briefly.

Our eyes, briefly,

see with a hurtful clarity.

Our memory, suddenly sharpened,


gnaws on kind words


promised walks

never taken.

From Phenomenal Woman:

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.

I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size

But when I start to tell them,

They think I'm telling lies.

I say,

It's in the reach of my arms

The span of my hips,

The stride of my step,

The curl of my lips.

I'm a woman


Phenomenal woman,

That's me.