There’s nothing better than walking down the street and seeing poetry on your way to the library.
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.
Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature brought to you by The Broke and the Bookish.
This week’s topic was to pick some of our favorite quotes from books we’ve read this year. So I went back through some of the books I read this year, and here’s what I came up with. Some books were hard to find quotes for, and others jumped out. It only made sense that all the quotes turned out to be about books/words/writing/stories. The first was an accident, the second was inevitable, and the third quote sealed the deal.
- From George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil “We learn words by rote, but not their meaning; that must be paid for with our life-blood, and printed in the subtle fibres of our nerves.”
- From Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry “You know everything you need to know about a person from the answer to the question, What is your favorite book?”
- From Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah “Why did people ask “What is it about?” as if a novel had to be about only one thing.”
- From Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’ The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society “Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true.”
- From Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea “Of course reading and thinking are important but, my God, food is important too.”
- From Donna Tartt’s The Secret History “I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.”
- From Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings “Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning.”
- From Renee Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn “After all, every story has a story.”
- From Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens “No one can tell a story without transforming it in some way; it is part of the magic of storytelling. Like the troubadors of the past, who hid their messages in poems, songs and fairy tales, I too would hide my true purpose [ … ]
It was by telling stories that I would save myself.”
- From Malala Yousafzai’s I Am Malala “Let us pick up our books and our pens, they are the most powerful weapons.”
I haven’t written up reviews on a couple of these, but those will be forthcoming, I promise.
Do you have a favorite quote about the power of words? Put that quote in the comments.
Sorry this post is late–we had company staying with us and there wasn’t time to sit down and write out a post!
As a child, your worldview is largely based on sensory input. Reality is what you taste, hear, smell, touch, and see. Looking back on these experiences, we can interpret these sensations and try to make them fit in a larger worldview. As she writes her extremely descriptive memoir, Maya Angelou largely leaves out her older interpretations of things that happen to her to focus on the experience of being a child. Part of that experience is, of course, related to food, which has the power to draw out many of our deepest memories.
I chose the tea cookies specifically because they’re consumed in an interaction that would later have an influence on Angelou’s career as a reader and a writer. She’s brought into a neighbor’s, Mrs. Flowers’, home and encouraged to read after a traumatizing incident of rape sends her back from her mother’s home in St Louis to her grandmother in the country.
Sometimes it is kindness that most leaves an impression on us later, and the sweetness in this moment is as much due to the sugar in the cookies as it is to the actions of those who find us at our most vulnerable and make us feel human again.
“She carried a platter covered with a tea towel. Although she warned that she hadn’t tried her hand at baking sweets for some time, I was certain that like everything else about her the cookies would be perfect.
They were flat round wafers, slightly browned on the edges and butter-yellow in the center. With the cold lemonade they were sufficient for childhood’s lifelong diet. Remembering my manners, I took nice little ladylike bites off the edges. She said she had made them expressly for me and that she had a few in the kitchen that I could take home to my brother. So I jammed one whole cake in my mouth and the rough crumbs scratched the insides of my jaws, and if I hadn’t had to swallow, it would have been a dream come true.” 99
One of the interesting things about this passage is the way that perfection is attributed to the cookies. Perfection in childhood seems attainable, if only certain things were different about ourselves and certain things remain unknown about others. But in reality, even happy memories are bookmarked by moments of pain and imperfection, roughness with sweetness. It is Angelou’s ability to deftly juxtapose and bring together such seeming opposites that makes her book truly remarkable.
Tea cookies (also called tea cakes) are a round, simple sugar cookie that can be served with tea or lemonade. You can also spread things on top of the cookies, like jam or lemon curd, make icing or frosting, or sandwich them together.
Adapted from Southern Living‘s recipe.
- 1 cup softened butter
- 2 cups sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 3 1/2 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest (optional) –if you’re not partial to lemon, you could also use 1/4 nutmeg for more flavor
Beat butter for several minutes until creamy. Add sugar and beat until fluffy, 2-3 more minutes. Add eggs one at a time, until blended. Add in vanilla, salt, and lemon zest.
In 1/2 cup- 1 cup increments, add flour and baking soda until well mixed.
Divide dough in half and chill one hour, until firm. If you don’t want to wait that long, you can roll the dough into balls and press them down so you don’t have to roll the cookies.
Preheat the oven to 350F. Roll dough on a well floured surface to 1/4 inch thickness for a thinner cookie, or 1/3-1/2 an inch for a thicker, chewier cookie. Try not to handle the dough too much as you do this as this will result in tougher cookies.
Cut out cookies with a round cutter and place on parchment paper or a silpat. Bake for 8-11 minutes or until slightly brown at the edges. Cool on a cooling rack.
You can then repeat the process with the remaining dough or save it in the fridge for several days or in the freezer.
Is there a memory you credit with inspiring your love of reading? I’ve always loved books, but after second grade my family moved. My teacher gave me a copy of The Emerald City of Oz by L. Frank Baum, which she was going to finish reading next year. I sat at our cabin and read this book in one sitting on the porch and I remember looking out and thinking that I was meant to read books.
In 8th grade when the other group of kids (in the other English class) was reading this book, we read The Outsiders, which is a fine book, but it doesn’t really hold a candle to Maya Angelou. I always felt that by not getting to read this book I was missing out, so I had to read it for this challenge.
Reading it now, I’m not sure why they assigned it in middle school. The book is really good, quite emotionally stirring with interesting (and intense) subject matter, but the ending seems like it would be very unsatisfying to a 13/14 year old since it leaves you with so many questions.
I’m very glad that I read this classic autobiography, which if you didn’t read it in school is very much worth reading. Angelou’s writing is good enough that the story flows like fiction and the subject matter gives you a lot to think about. It does stop when Angelou is about 16, so if you’re looking for a glimpse of how she became a writer, you’ll only get the smallest of them from this book. Rich and vibrant, this memoir is not to be missed.