Reading Through the Stacks: 2. Maya Angelou’s first book of poetry

Join me as I read my way through the poetry section at the main branch of the Oakland Public Library!

First of all, I can’t talk about this book without mentioning how fun this 70s sunset is on the cover–bold, interesting, and really quite simple. I think this library copy is probably a first edition.

By the time Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014) published her first book of poetry, she’d already published her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). Angelou is known as a memoirist first and foremost (which is fair since she wrote seven of them), but I’ve always associated her with poetry. My first exposure to Maya Angelou was in middle school–the other 8th grade English class read her memoir–but I discovered her when my dad brought home Beauty Shop (2005), with its memorable oration of ‘I Rise.’

Angelou was an activist and a storyteller in diverse mediums from dance and stage to autobiography. Her poetry is less central to her career, even though she published a lot of it and it was widely read particularly because of its subject matter. She used her experience to bring a voice to the experiences of Black women in the United States through almost every piece of writing and work she created.

Angelou was also a prolific and widely-read poet, and her poetry has often been lauded more for its depictions of Black beauty, the strength of women, and the human spirit; criticizing the Vietnam War; demanding social justice for all—than for its poetic virtue. Yet Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, which was published in 1971, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1972.

from Poetry Foundation: Maya Angelou

Her poetry is really approachable since it has a musical quality with a steady beat. She uses repetition to great effect. She plays with expectations constantly, changing the rhythm of a line or to bring home her message and she often uses common phrases or simple rhymes to tease out darker subjects, such as in the lines below.

“When I think about myself,

I almost laugh myself to death,

My life has been one great big joke,

A dance that’s walked

A song that’s spoke,

I laugh so hard I almost choke

When I think about myself”

from “When I Think About Myself”

This was such a welcome book coming after the boring boring boring Shakespeare essay. It was emotional and immediate, and I really enjoyed it. I’ll be looking for a collected works of Maya Angelou to add to my poetry collection.

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