Originally Published May 2014
by Matt Larrrimore
4Ties Lit is a group effort. Our zine couldn’t succeed without the contributions of our editors and of course our contributors. For that reason and a few others, I have purposefully avoided using “I” and a personal point of view when posting to our magazine. The “royal we” reigns here. But special people and circumstances deserve allowances. Maya Angelou passed away on May 27th. She was an inspirational figure for many, including myself.
I believe Literature and especially Poetry, to be my vocation. I’ve wandered away from that vocation more then once only to have its voice call me back again. January 20th 1993 was one of those times.
I was working in Special Education and like many educators, I was excited about the possibilities the newly elected President Clinton might mean for the institutions I worked at and my career. No matter the party, the election of every new president brings a feeling of hope to me, like a breeze on a warm spring morning. So watching the inauguration was a given. This was the first time in sixteen years the Democrats had won the highest office. All the pomp and circumstance was on display; bands, banners and the crowd. First the Vice-President was sworn in and then William Jefferson Clinton took the oath of office to become the 42nd President of the United States of America. Afterward, the newly-minted president addressed the nation and gave us a dose of his brand of public persona, soaked in history, faith, patriotism, and liberal idealism. But what happened afterward was the highlight of the day for me.
Maya Angelou stepped to the microphone and recited “On the Pulse of Morning.” Critics say the poem soars and reaches high and captures some, but not quite all, of the grandeur it promises. Occasional poetry is notoriously difficult to write; however, a poem that good could be the highlight of many poets careers. But what was more important than the poem was that Maya Angelou was the first poet to recite at an inauguration since Robert Frost and the first minority poet (of any kind) to recite at that occasion, ever.
“On the Pulse of the Morning” is a good poem but not Dr Angelou’s best. I discovered what I think of as her best poem a few days later. “And Still I Rise” was published in 1978 in the book of the same name. Despite it being about the experience of being proud black woman, an experience that couldn’t be further from my own, the poem speaks to me. It is incredibly well-crafted using imagery, sound, pattern, humor and more. But its message is all-important. It is inspirational and encourages one to overcome one’s circumstances. It was a message I needed to hear in January 1993. The idea that someone from such a dissimilar background writing about such a dissimilar experience could reach out and encourage me seemed amazing. It confirmed to me the power of poetry at a time when I had forgotten it. It made (and still makes) me want to be able to write like that too.
Maya Angelou’s life and writing continues to be inspirational for me. I’ve of course read and even prepared to teach, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” If you haven’t read it, you should. I’ve used even used her biography as a teaching tool for composition classes. I also, had the great luck to hear Dr Angelou speak in person at Arizona State University in 2011. It was an amazing experience. Simply put, her life and career are awe-inspiring. Ours is a better world for her having passed this way.
Thank you Maya.