A Maya Angelou Sampler

Maya Angelou is easy to admire. She has tremendous integrity. She’s an accomplished writer in a variety of mediums, as well as being an accomplished performer and an effective advocate for issues of social justice. One might even speculate that her primary gift is versatility. However, she is not a great poet. She’s a good poet with an undeniable gift for language, but she is not a great poet and she isn’t primarily a poet. Still, I would be happy to see a collection of her poems in every library, especially small town libraries, because her work is accessible. But there’s no need to have quite as many books by her as the Albertville library has (6 currently available). And now that her poems have been collected into a single volume, I’d recommend simply having that single volume on hand and culling the individual volumes (most of which are paperbacks or gift-sized books). And cease buying her poetry (should she write any more). To give this library credit, they once had a collected volume that has been “kept” by a patron.

I pulled three volumes of Angelou’s poetry to peruse. I’ll review I
Shall Not Be Moved
first because it’s the only volume of original poetry of those I chose. The other two are gift books of her previously published work.

I Shall Not Be Moved
Copyright 1990
Checked out 4 times in 18 years
Last checked out 16 years ago

This volume has all the appeal one expects from Maya Angelou’s poetry. The poems are accessible to the average reader. There are poems celebrating womanhood and blackness (for lack of a better word), both present and historical. There are poems in sympathy with the lower and working classes. There are poems mourning injustice. There are poems about aging. There are poems about love and there are even a couple dealing with religion. The book has range.

My favorite poem in it is “The Human Family.” It isn’t the most artistically accomplished nor the most insightful nor the most inspirational poem in the book, but it’s often anthologized in textbooks for young people. It’s song-like quality makes it easy to read and remember, and it highlights a challenge in compassion that we continue to struggle with as human beings, which is to tolerate, even celebrate, differences, while acknowedging the depth and fundamental importance of our similarities. Six stanzas are about our differences but the weight of the poem falls on the thrice repeated refrain at the end:

but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

I wish I could say she was stating the obvious, but this may be something human beings need to be reminded of throughout time, and certainly our particular community needs to keep it in mind as we struggle for a positive response to immigrants who have moved here.

Since this is a volume of Angelou’s original poetry, it’s a keeper, as is Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing. However, they’re both paperbacks. As I did at the beginning of this sampling, I again recommend acquiring a hardcover collected poems because these will eventually have to be discarded.

Unfortunately, the three hardcover books of Angelou’s poetry currently in 811 are gift books, small and containing little poetry. One contains only the inaugural peom she wrote for Bill Clinton. Another, Phenomenal Woman, has four poems celebrating women. It has been checked out 8 times in 15 years, more than her other books of poetry.

The other hardcover gift book I pulled is Still I Rise. I would argue that this book belongs in the library’s art section. It contains only one poem divided among 14 pages, but it has more work by artist Diego Rivera than I have ever seen in one place. In truth, I chose to bring this home because I love the art of Diego Rivera. It has only been checked out once in about 9 years (if it was acquired near the time of publication). However, this is a perfect example of a book that doesn’t need to be checked out to be enjoyed.

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About jppoetryreader

Poetry reviewer and poetry consultant for libraries
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