‘When Great Trees Fall’: The Poetry of Maya Angelou

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Editor: Jonathan Vereecke
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 216)
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,916 words

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[(essay date 2014) In the following essay, Lupton traces several recognizable debts of Angelou’s work to that of preceding African American poets, including Paul Laurence Dunbar and Georgia Douglas Johnson, “and to the black musical tradition,” and remarks that she knows only of a sole scholar, Lyman B. Hagen (1997; see Further Reading), who had “adequately dealt with Angelou’s poetry.” Quoted material in this essay has been removed due to copyright restrictions.]

As a child growing up in Stamps, Arkansas, Maya Angelou (born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri in 1928) developed an early love for the music of African American poetry and for the rhythms of the Negro spiritual.1 She loved to recite the poems of James Weldon Johnson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Langston Hughes for her paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson. These recitations were in a small sense preparations for what I consider to be her greatest poetic achievement: the composition and performance of “On the Pulse of Morning”, written for the Inauguration of President William Clinton in 1993.

During her childhood she memorized the works of white poets as well—Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Matthew Arnold—although her grandmother forbade her to recite them. In a spirited public interview at the Young Men’s Hebrew Association in Manhattan in 1990, Angelou confessed to George Plimpton that she and her brother Bailey did not dare to perform a scene from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, despite having assured Mama Henderson that the author, although indeed white, had been dead for centuries. Her grandmother answered, “‘No Ma’am, little mistress you will not.’ So I rendered James Weldon Johnson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes.”2

Allusions to works by black poets and to the black musical tradition—the blues, spirituals, gospel—appear in her poems and were incorporated into the titles of five of her six autobiographies. Her noted image, the “caged bird,’” dominates the title of her first and most famous autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970) and is the title of the poem “Caged Bird”, published in the volume Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing in 1983 (CP [The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou] 194).3

The image of the trapped bird originated in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1896 “Sympathy,” a poem whose third stanza begins and ends with “I know why the caged bird sings.”4 In Angelou’s “Caged Bird” one finds a similar use of repetition and an intense longing to be free; in both poems the caged bird is a symbol for the enchained slave and for his/her constrained descendants. However, in “Caged Bird” Angelou does not repeat Dunbar’s “I know why” refrain. Nor does she present as brutal or emotional a portrait of the creature’s pain or scars as Dunbar does in “Sympathy”; his battered bird beats “his wing / Till its blood is red on the cruel bars.”

In The Heart of a Woman, her fourth autobiography (1981), Angelou again take her title directly from African American poetry, adopting...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420126676