05/28/2014 09:09 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2014

The Day Maya Angelou Was the Poem

In 1993, after listening to Maya Angelou deliver the inaugural poem at Bill Clinton's presidential swearing-in, I wrote an essay for the Buffalo News about what her words meant to me.

It was the first piece I had been able to write in several years, and it got me back to writing.

Maya Angelou had walked a long road to that podium and poem: an African American girl born in a hamlet in Jim Crow south in 1928, raped at 8, mute for five years, a single mother at 17. Now she stood with enormous dignity, addressing the world with eloquence and grace, her multicultural poem "On the Pulse of Morning" offering inclusiveness, possibility, forgiveness, and above all, hope. She had done more than survive, she had prevailed.

I was dazzled and inspired, as were many, although more than a few poets carped about "weaknesses," her "lack of density of image," "Keats she's not." A famous poet fired off a snappy note to me, chastising the choice of her for inaugural poet, the quality of her poetry, and above all my essay, which certainly didn't "help poetry."

I fired a snappy note back, but inside, I was shaken, the depressive's familiar veil Have I been manipulated and duped again sliding down over me. I sent my essay to the poet Miller Williams, my mentor years before, whom I could trust for hard truth, and asked, Did my emotional response completely color my critical faculties?

Miller wrote back, The house of poetry has many rooms.

Which is exactly what Maya Angelou's poem was saying about America's house.

She specialized in giving voice to people who, for whatever reason, were voiceless.

I couldn't tell you if "On The Pulse of Morning" was poetry or musical prose, or a litany, or a benediction, or even if it was the way she read the words that spoke to our hearts.

That day, Maya Angelou was the poem.

I'll be forever grateful that I was there listening.

RIP, Maya Angelou.