Maya Angelou

And Still I Rise

“Love by nature, exacts a pain
Unequalled on the rack.”

There is something about Maya Angelou’s (April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014) poetry that demands an audience, a recipient ear.

Although she is best known for autobiography, Angelou’s poetry is more active, pressing. It could gather its skirts and dance down the street.

Is it true the ribs can tell
The kick of a beast from a
Lover’s fist? The bruised
Bones recorded well
The sudden shock, the
Hard impact. Then swollen lids,
Sorry eyes, spoke not
Of lost romance, but hurt

[…]

Love by nature, exacts a pain
Unequalled on the rack.

From “A Kind of Love, Some Say”

I imagine she is speaking to me especially and that I am joined by her younger self. That tender child who held her voice for five years after she was raped at age eight.

I had to stop talking. I discovered that to achieve perfect personal silence all I had to do was to attach myself leechlike to sound. I began to listen to everything. I probably hoped that after I had heard all the sounds, really heard them and packed them down, deep in my ears, the world would be quiet around me. I walked into rooms where people were laughing, their voices hitting the walls like stones, and I simply stood still—in the midst of the riot of sound. After a minute or two, silence would rush into the room from its hiding place because I had eaten up all the sounds.

From Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Photograph of Maya Angelou, 1988. Featured in Maya Angelou's "And Still I Rise" in the Examined Life Library.
Maya Angelou, 1988.

A young voice once retracted finds expression in the older Angelou and through this powerful collection of poems And Still I Rise.

If we parcelled and fastened the pain of our younger, formative life and gave it corpus, held it close and wrote poetry to sooth its cuts, the poetry would aspire to be this collection.

In every town and village,
In every city square,
In crowded places
I searched the faces
Hoping to find
Someone to care.

I read mysterious meanings
In the distant stars,
Then I went to schoolrooms
And poolrooms
And half-lighted cocktail bars.
Braving dangers,
going with strangers,
I don’t even remember their names.
I was quick and breezy
And always easy
Playing romantic games…

From “Where We Belong, A Duet”

Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, a contemporary of Angelou’s, living almost the same life-span, wrote once about meeting her younger self and how that they remained distant by lacking a common language.

Preoccupied by this concept of nurturing one’s former self as an audience, it is to her I myself write. Not to change the past, for that self is not past, it is here, in memory as real as anything.

Angelou’s language might indeed be unknown to a youth (can the young understand love, promise, pain?), but the emotion is beautifully common and thus, connective.

Beloved,
In what other lives or lands
Have I known your lips
Your hands
Your laughter brave
Irreverent.
Those sweet excesses that
I do adore.
What surety is there
That we will meet again

[…]

Without the Promise
Of one more sweet encounter
I will not deign to die.

From “Refusal”

I know why the caged bird sings
Maya Angelou, 1988.

The Lesson

I keep on dying again.
Veins collapse, opening like the
Small fists of sleeping
Children.
Memory of old tombs,
Rotting flesh and worms do
Not convince me against
The challenge. The years
And cold defeat live deep in
Lines along my face
They dull my eyes, yet
I keep on dying,
Because I love to live.

In one of Angelou’s last published works, an empowered epistle to all the women she nurtured throughout her life, she reckons “I have learned to accept my responsibility and to forgive myself first.” And Still I Rise is written under the warm aegis of that self-forgiveness.

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. […]

From “Caged Bird”

Read full poem here.

Bird. Featured in Maya Angelou's "And Still I Rise" in the Examined Life Library.
Bird. Named for Anne Lamott’s timeless advice on the creative habit. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

I mentioned audience, I meant a theatre of note, but also an intended ear. But who is this audience? To whom is Angelou writing? Well, everyone who will listen, those who loved her, hurt her. She writes to the assembly of memory.

Photograph of Maya Angelou, 1988. Featured in Maya Angelou's "And Still I Rise" in the Examined Life Library.
Maya Angelou, 1988.

And yet there is one poem, the eponymous poem, which is addressed to he who will not listen. Who has never heard. That person who James Baldwin said looked at him like he was from another planet, and who saw – and ignored – wretchedness in Billie Holiday. That person unawake in the purest sense of the word, the way Anna Deavere Smith means it.

This poem is my favorite.

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.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries

[…]

From “Still I Rise”

Read full poem here.

Power is a funny thing. We give it, or share it. Commend it, fight for it. We oogle it, extol it, and there never seems to be enough of it. I learned from Angelou. Step back, bow, let others take it. Here.

Buttress yourself against the “fulminant of days” with And Still I Rise or any of Angelou’s writing including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Mom & Me & Mom. Or pick up the pain-clipped verse of Rupi Kaur, who like Angelou, knew assault as a child. As I said of Kaur, of Angelou…those who meet pain with love deserve the loudest possible amplifier, the most eager audience.

Here.

Maya Angelou © The Examined Life