Thursday, May 29, 2014

Maya Angelou: Someone Who Knew Why.

I like to see the children say, 'I never thought of that before.' And I think, ‘I've got them!'"

-Maya Angelou

Here are some of her occupations: San Francisco’s first woman streetcar driver (at 16!), 17-year-old teen mom high school graduate, opera singer who toured Europe in the ‘50s, film director, civil rights activist…

…there’s so much more she did, too, like speaking six languages and performing in Broadway plays, but let’s talk about her poetry.

While she’s best known for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, her biographical tale of growing up in the Jim Crow South, throughout her life she jotted down poems to distract herself from the trauma of childhood sexual abuse and racism. It was first published in 1983, but no one is really sure when Ms. Angelou first wrote “Caged Bird”:

…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…

If you get a chance, do a little research on this woman. Seriously, this is one of the most amazing people to ever breathe oxygen. When the hell did she sleep?

Maya Angelou’s death made me remember how powerful poetry can be, how it hits a sweet spot in us not reachable by music or traditional prose. As good as a song may be, I tend to focus on the melody and lose the lyrics. I can immerse myself in a good novel, yet it doesn’t strike with the emotional cadence of poetry.

My friend Jame Richards took things a step further. In Three Rivers Rising, she recounts the 1889 Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood. After a dam fails and unleashes twenty million gallons of water on working- class Johnstown, the story unfolds from the perspectives of a wealthy teenage girl staying at the resort on the hill above harm’s way, and her forbidden boyfriend whose family resides in the valley below.

The subject matter alone is intriguing, but here’s the cool part—it's written in verse:


…Father says he comes for the fishing,
but in truth he comes to keep an eye
on other businessmen.

I have never seen him hook
a worm or tie a fly.

I cannot imagine him gutting a fish
or scraping scales.

The only scales he knows
are for banking and shipping.

But his partners and rivals decided
it was time for fresh air,
peace and quiet,
away from the filth and crowds of the city.

So, even at this pastoral lakeside resort,
my father will not miss
the glimmer of a business deal
spoken over rifles or fishing reels…

It's a craft that can veer in limitless directions. Ever read a poem by Charles Bukowski? The guy was no Hallmark Card, but man, could he hit a nerve:

…there is a place in the heart that
will never be filled

a space

and even during the
best moments

we will know it…

That’s an excerpt from No Hope for That. 

Thanks for making every day seem like Monday, Chuck. Remind me to look for that refrigerator magnet at your website.

Let’s end on a high note. I would be committing felonious balonyous if I didn’t hoist Theodore Suess Geisel to the top of the turtle stack.

Horton. The Grinch. The Lorax. The main dude in Green Eggs and Ham who never states his name or species. Dr. Suess is nothing short of my idol, crafting his made-up words and simple rhymes into lessons on morality, loyalty and positivity:

Today you are you,
That is truer than true.
There is no one alive
Who is youer than you.

If you haven’t read Oh, the Places You’ll Go, give it a gaze. And hey, since it is the season, the hardback edition is a great gift for that special graduate.

Today we celebrate the life of an extraordinary human, one who wasn't afraid to take a few chances. How about if we honor Ms. Angelou’s memory by venturing into the scrawling out of a poem or two. 

No big whoop; anything you want, even if the first line contains “Nantucket.” Let’s see what you’ve got.

Rest in peace, Maya Angelou. Here’s to the poets.

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