I remember when I first understood the power of Maya Angelou. She had come to speak at Florida State University, where I was in graduate school. I walked out of the English department (where she hadn't generated much interest) and my jaw dropped to see the line of people winding across campus -- and I mean all the way across campus -- to get a chance to hear Angelou speak.
That moment sums up Maya Angelou for me. She's a hugely popular poet of the people at a time when poetry is not hugely popular, and, though she teaches, she is not a poet of academia (where most poetry resides these days). She is very proudly who she is. Critics who accuse her of writing "Hallmark card" poetry are missing the point: Angelou has no desire to be a T. S. Eliot. Besides, it's foolish to accuse someone of writing "Hallmark card" poetry when she is actually writing poetry for Hallmark cards.
She seems to be addressing her critics directly in this excerpt from her poem, "Still I 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.
In a 1965 letter that Malcolm X wrote to Angelou, he seemed to hit on her philosophy of writing: "Your analysis of our peoples [sic] tendency to talk over the head of the masses in a language that is too far above and beyond them is certainly true. You can communicate because you have plenty of [soul] and you always keep your feet firmly rooted on the ground[.]"
Angelou has certainly done that. And she also speaks about poetry in a way that everyone can understand. In an interview with the Associated Press on Tuesday, she described a writer's mission:
People all over the world use words; the writer comes along and has to use these most-in-use objects, put together a few nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives ... and pull them together and make them bounce, throw them against the wall and make people say, "I never thought of it that way."
It is suitable, then, that the iconic poet's work will be archived at a public place, and not in a university somewhere. The New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem purchased the Angelou archive this past week after two years of negotiations. The collection includes 343 boxes, and the Library estimates that it could take up to two years to organize all of the material.
We know that the collection includes drafts that show how Angelou fought through the editing process in writing her celebrated autobiography, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," and the 1993 inaugural poem she wrote for Bill Clinton entitled "On the Pulse of the Morning."
In addition to memorializing her literary career, the archive could shed some light on the great African-American leaders of the 20th century, as it includes letters addressed to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X and some correspondence. Speaking of the two leaders, Angelou told the AP:
Both those men were good men, strong and courageous, but they were men. I hope that in my papers people will find evidence that some of the people they would like to sit on pedestals were just like them, and so each of us has the possibility of being effective in changing our world, even if it's just the world around us.
Angelou has certainly done her world a great service. If you're interested, you can read more of her poems here.