Poetic justice Angelou readies verse for Jan. 20

January 14, 1993|By Newsday

Ever since the first day of December, when Bill Clinton invited her to write a poem for his swearing-in ceremony, Maya Angelou has fretted over her inaugural verse.

By Christmas, the poem was still unwritten and her well-wishers were not making the task any easier.

A friend observed, "The day after you recite your poem, millions of children will have to memorize it."

"Oh, thanks a lot," the poet replied. "I need that just to add a little more weight."

It has been 16 years since an American poet was commissioned to write a poem for a new president. In 1977, poet James Dickey read an inaugural poem at the Kennedy Center in Washington, on the eve of Jimmy Carter's swearing-in.

In 1961, when John F. Kennedy invited Robert Frost to recite at his inauguration, the New England poet was so touched that he wrote a new poem, "The Preface." His vision blurred by the blindingly bright January sunlight, Frost put aside his wind-rippled manuscript and, instead, recited from memory an earlier poem, "The Gift Outright."

For Ms. Angelou, the uncrowned poet laureate of black America, the invitation to the ceremony Wednesday was also thrilling, a tribute to poetry itself.

In her 64 years, living with pain and promise, Ms. Angelou has written five autobiographical works and four books of poetry. In the cadence of her everyday speech, she speaks poetry.

"The theme of all my work," she said, "everything I am about and everything I do, comes from Terence:

" 'Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto.' 'I am a human being: Nothing human is alien to me.'

"I believe that."

Citing the Roman dramatist who wrote 21 centuries ago, Ms. Angelou believes that poetry "lies at the heart of everything fine in the human experience."

Now a professor of American studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., she teaches undergraduate poetry and drama.

In earlier years, Ms. Angelou had been nominated for a Tony Award for her performance in "Look Away" on Broadway and featured prominently as Kunta Kinte's mother in "Roots" on television.

She says she feels she is a fitting choice for a place at Mr. Clinton's party, a fitting choice of a black woman to write a poem about the afflictions that divide the nation -- her only hint about the nature of her poem-in-progress.

"Somehow, a black woman knows all about that," she says.

She learned her own painful lessons early. Born in St. Louis, she was raised by her grandmother who owned a country store in Stamps, Ark., about 25 miles from the town of Hope, Mr. Clinton's birthplace.

And her girlhood experiences are chronicled in "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," the first of her autobiographies, which recounts her life up to age 16, ending with the birth of her son Guy.

Nominated for a National Book Award in 1970, the work recounts Ms. Angelou's experience as a rape victim when she was 8 years old. After the attack, she did not speak for five years, blaming herself for the death of the rapist who was later murdered by enraged neighbors.

Her silence, she said later, intensified her memory and her writing. "I learned to love to listen," she says. "That's why I love teaching languages. I love human voices. But then, everything contributes to everything, like reading Shakespeare when I was a child, even the way my grandmother made soup."

She is likely to reflect her new feelings of hope for the country, inspired in part by the invitation of a poet to Washington.

"I recently told the BBC [British Broadcasting Corp.] that if some of the commissions and omissions of the preceding administrations had a negative effect on the citizenry, why shouldn't something good, like inviting a poet to the inauguration, have a positive effect on the country? If the trickle-down theory works, it works," she says, laughing.

"If you don't believe there's poetry in the preamble to the Constitution or in the political writings of the 18th and 19th centuries," she asks, "then why do our eyes fill with tears when we hear the words of Thomas Paine or Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass, for that matter?"

But what would Maya Angelou say to the angry ghetto kid who scoffs and asks: "What does a White House invitation to a successful black poet mean to me?"

Ms. Angelou recalled her visit to the White House last year when Barbara Bush opened the Lincoln bedroom, usually closed to the public, to a visiting group of black entertainers and writers.

"Later, I told President Bush that when I went into that room, I was reminded of the millions of my people who died before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. In my mind, I said to them, 'Come with me, be here, see this portrait, see this desk. It was here that all apologies that will be made have been made, in this very place.' "

When she described her feelings, Ms. Angelou says, the president was in tears.

In her kitchen, she recalls the words of Julia Cooper, a 19th-century black educator who said, "All my people go with me, when and where I enter."

Angelou whispers the revered words. That's what she would reply, she says, to the young people who ask about a black poet invited to an inauguration: "All my people go with me."

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