As I have mentioned here before, there was a time in my life when poetry was very important to me. Reading it, studying it, writing it, writing about it. I read a lot of poets during that time, by assignment and by choice. I really liked some, and I really didn’t like others.
Part of that was my youth. My mood. No kid likes reading anything he is forced to read, and Maya Angelou fell in that category. Not only that, but I didn’t feel like her poems spoke to me in the way that, say, Dylan Thomas’s did, or Emily Dickinson’s. W.S. Merwin’s. e.e. cummings’s. For what it’s worth, I also didn’t much care for most of Walt Whitman. And still pretty much feel that way.
I do recall, however, watching and listening as Maya Angelou read her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. I would have been 12 or 13. Even then, I didn’t love it, it wasn’t my “style.” But I remembered it, especially the repeating but changing references to the Tree, the Rock, the River. And I remember her voice as she read “I, the Rock, I, the River, I, the Tree.” I remember thinking how cool it was that a poem was being read at such a pivotal, historical moment. I was relived that poetry was still alive and well, and worthy of a nation’s attention.
And then I put Maya Angelou out of my mind. Didn’t think much about her, one way or another, for the next several years. Being an English major, I of course read and dissected I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. But I didn’t read her on my own. I didn’t seek her out outside of my assignments. Which is too bad.
She passed away almost a year ago, and I felt a pang more poignant than my extremely limited exposure to her would seem to merit. But there it was. I felt like I had let her down, and deprived myself of a great experience, even a “relationship” in the process. But time went by and life got in the way and I went on reading other writers. Other poets.
Until a few weeks ago, without really looking, I happened upon The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou at my local library. It almost leapt out at me from the shelves. I took it, took it home, opened it, and was transformed.
Her poems are so beautiful, her voice so distinct. The rhythm. The feeling. I can still see what did not connect for me in my younger years, but those sentiments no longer impact my enjoyment of her writing. I think, when less experienced, what I dismissed as “not speaking to me” was really her not speaking for me. Her perspective was so foreign to my own, I couldn’t grasp why I should care. But I was so wrong.
Of course who I am has not changed. I have the same background. I will never really know what it is like to be her, a strong, intelligent black woman growing up in this country when and where she did. But that’s why reading her is so important. I can never be who she was, but I can share a little bit in that experience by reading her. What struck me as overly simplistic and “rhyme-y” when I was younger now makes sense. It’s not just the words, it’s the feeling, the rhythm. The movement and energy. Her works are not simple, nor is her message. It is unbelievably complex. And the more I read, the more I felt I understood. Though I still have a long way to go.
And she did ask the big questions, the same ones I was asking. I just didn’t try hard enough to see. Like in her poem “Wonder,” when she asks: “Will I be less/dead because I wrote this/poem or you more because/you read it/long years hence.” Whoa! There were many, many more (“Recovery,” “Starvation,” “The Lie,” to name just a few).
I am still sad she’s gone, as I mourn the loss of any artist. But writers are lucky. Their words live on, and in that way, at least in a sense, they are immortal. I wish I would have tried harder sooner, but it’s not too late. It has been a fabulous and invigorating rediscovery.
In this spirit, I think we should all go back and maybe give a writer we have set aside in the past another try. Just as you can never set foot in the exact same river twice, we are always changing and growing. We are not who we were at 13, or 21, or 30. And that can be a good thing.
How about it? Anyone else gone back to rediscover an author they had discarded? Who are some authors who deserve a second chance?