A poet writes to Angelou about the inspiration she has drawn from her
Last week, in an exhaustive search at one of my loved book stores, I was directed to the poetry section. A small niche, tucked away at the back, almost as if it were an embarrassment.
I found a few treasures there, including, to my delight, your collection of poems, And Still I Rise.
Even as I savour the words and their shining and steadfast truth, I have to contend with the idea of your forever absence.
You lived your life like an open book. Like a seven-volume autobiography that you started at the age of 17 and wrote till age 85. Not all personal stories are interesting nor can they be considered literature. But your books are both.
To see life in that unflinching, clear-eyed way, to talk of your experiences being coloured, discriminated against and abused and to do so without apology but empathy, without expectation but hope, without intolerance but understanding; that takes a special kind of woman to do so.
And you were special, amazing, phenomenal. Your poem, Phenomenal Woman, had even people uninterested in poetry enjoying the rhythm and sassiness of the lines. I love that poem, because it tells us to go beyond the body and be about the being. To think about the size of your heart, not the size of your waist, the caring in your soul, not the money you make. The poem never fails to thrill no matter the audience but it is to women that it has special appeal. Move beyond society and its ridiculous notions of what’s beautiful. Embrace yourself, your own beauty and watch the world come knocking. That’s what your poem told me, taught me.
Your undaunted narration won you veneration but also denigration. Many people, not just parents and educationalists, were uncomfortable by the strong themes your writing had. A case in point is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. You took on some heavy themes - religion, sex and violence and spoke with such candidness that it unsettled many. Maybe as women we are expected to feel, to bear, to suffer, to live, to celebrate, but to stay quiet. I know, laughable!
Your On the Pulse of Morning, read at the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton was spirited and strong and spoke volumes for the hope all of us carry in our hearts. Ms Angelou, you create hope, love and kindness in a world that needs them all so desperately. I carry your words in my heart – “I rise. I rise. I rise.”