Inauguration Day poet knows caged bird's soul


January 19, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

Maya Angelou's poetry is as lilting as music: bittersweet lik the blues, rough-edged and unexpected like be-bop jazz. Maya Angelou's poetry is street-wise like hip-hop, and touched by glory like a gospel choir.

Her poetry collections have names that rock and sway: "Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie," and "Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well," and "Shaker, Why Don't You Sing?"

Her autobiography, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," carried this dedication: "To my son, Guy Johnson, and all the strong black birds of promise who defy the odds and gods and sing their songs."

She has the unblinking eye of a journalist, as in "Momma Welfare Roll": "Too fat to whore/ Too mad to work/ Searches her dreams for the Lucky sign and walks bare-handed into a den of bureaucrats for her portion/ "They don't give me welfare. I take it."

Sometimes, Ms. Angelou sounds very angry. In her poem, "On Working White Liberals" (written, I assume, when such people were more plentiful), she says: "So I'll believe in Liberal's aid for us/ When I see a white man load a Black man's gun."

And sometimes her music is kissed by sadness: "In a time of secret wooing/ Today prepares tomorrow's ruin/ Left knows not what right is doing/ My heart is torn asunder."

But always, always, Maya Angelou's poetic music, her musical poetry, echoes of possibility and hope and the strength and courage to keep on going, as in her glorious anthem, "Still I Rise": "You may write me down in history/ With your bitter, twisted lies/ You may trod me in the very dirt/ But still, like dust, I'll rise."

She has written: "Sounds, like pearls, roll off your tongue, to grace this eager ebon ear./ Doubt and fear, ungainly things, with blushings disappear."

Read her poetry out loud and the sounds, like pearls, roll off your tongue. Take her poetry to your heart and doubt and fear -- with blushings -- disappear.

Ms. Angelou is a soulful lady. A beautiful lady. And I find it very interesting that president-elect Bill Clinton commissioned her to create an Inaugural Day poem. She has said the poem she will read tomorrow will touch upon the afflictions that divide our nation. She has affirmed that her words will not be directed only to white Americans or black Americans but to everyone.

"I am a human being," she says, quoting the dramatist Terence of ancient Rome. "Nothing human is alien to me." Beyond that, she will not discuss her poem-in-progress further. We will have to wait. The future will unfold.

Ms. Angelou is 64 years old and a professor of American studies at Wake Forest University. She was born in St. Louis. She was raised by her grandmother in Stamp, Ark., about 25 miles from Mr. Clinton's birthplace.

By commissioning this work, he is attempting to signal something to the nation about the nature of his administration: that it might be inclusive, multicultural, visionary.

But cynics say the president will prove to be all symbolism, no substance. They doubt Mr. Clinton has even taken the trouble to read Ms. Angelou's works. "Get me the name of a famous black from Arkansas," says Mr. Clinton to his aides (according to the cynics).

But the truth of a Clinton presidency also will unfold with time.

For now, however, the nation will hear Ms. Angelou's song, and I am glad. Already her books have been stripped from local libraries and from the shelves of bookstores. Teachers have had to scramble to find out who she is.

From the "Caged Bird": "A free bird leaps on the back of the wind/ and floats downstream till the current ends/ and dips his wing in the orange sun rays/ and dares to claim the sky.

"But a bird that stalks down his narrow cage/ can seldom see through his bars of rage/ his wings are clipped and his feet are tied/ so he opens his throat to sing.

"The caged bird sings with a fearful trill/ of things unknown but longed for still/ and his tune is heard on the distant hill/ for the caged bird sings of freedom."

Ms. Angelou is a poet who understands why the caged bird sings.

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