Maya Angelou and the Importance of Being a Poet


Poetry often gets a bad rap for being self-indulgent and overly emotional. The stereotype of a deep, intense poet is often portrayed to show over-intellectual and over-sensitive types spouting poems even at the most inappropriate of times. Poetry however is much more than just about the self, it’s about society, politics, gender, emotions, thoughts, relationships and just about everything that life involves.

The recent departure of the poet and activist Maya Angelou highlights this issue for me as her work was far-reaching and made commentaries on many areas of society. Her poem `Still I Rise’, is written as a dialogue between `you’ and `I’, but highlights many issues about the history of slavery and the cultural ancestry of those who were affected by slavery, many of whom lost access to their African history, with the changing of their names, culture and the loss of their freedoms. This is one person writing the poem from their own perspective but sometimes just one person needs to say something about an issue.

The Carolina Theater, Greensboro, North Caroli...

The Carolina Theater, Greensboro, North Carolina, September, 2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

`First they came’ by Martin Neimöller is a poem with a clear political message about political non-action. Whether you agree with Neimöller or not the poem is potent and is rightly famous for its exemplification of the danger of turning a blind eye to the persecution of others.

Not all poems are so clearly political. Some just capture a moment, some a profound philosophical struggle. There can be poems about doing the housework such as the one which Maya Angelou wrote about `Woman work’, although the poem is more of a commentary on gender roles than just about cleaning up. The choice, if you feel the need to write poetry is yours. You can write about whatever you like. The point of poetry is in its freedom to explore that which is often difficult to say or is unsaid and therefore the capacity for poetry to connect with others is massive. Don’t worry if you think that you are not very good. I doubt that there are many poets who don’t look at their work and think at some point that it is terrible. Poets are naturally self-analytical and will see all the flaws in their own work. The point is not to be discouraged. People think about failing as purely a negative act but the most successful people in the world will have likely failed over and over again until they did succeed. Losing can be a learning experience and can teach you something which you never knew before. As a friend of mine recently quoted from Maya Angelou:

“We May Suffer Many Defeats but We Must Not Be Defeated.”
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