Thursday, May 29, 2014

Maya Angelou - Poetry

I'm breaking the pattern here.  The book I'm working from (found here) has the poems listed in chronological order.  Whether that's chronological from the time the poem was published or from the author's lifetime, I don't know.  In any case, I'm jumping to the very last poem in the book.  It's my project and this seems to be a fitting exception.
The poem is by Maya Angelou, who died yesterday.  She was the only poet in the book that was still living when it was published, so now the slate is clear.  I've heard of her (of course) but I don't think I've read any of her work.  The poem is called '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.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may  cut me iwth your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefullness
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs? Out of the huts of
history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise

Into a daybreak that's wonderously clear
I rise
Bring the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

That's a powerful poem, with some very striking passages.  I particularly like the comparison to wealth and confidence: 'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells/Pumping in my living room'.  She seems to be saying that if you're rich enough, you can tell everyone off.  And, though her wealth might not be material, she has enough of it to fend off those that want to keep her down.
Of course, fighting back against those who want to keep her down, is very much a part of her moment in history.  The fight against Jim Crowe and segregation was literally a fight against those who wanted to trap a minority into a permanent underclass.  It was a fight to rise against that.  The anger in this poem is earned.  So is the sense of accomplishment.
There is some echo of that in today's struggles, I'm sure.  As a white man, at the age of forty, I'm not really the target audience but I can stretch my empathy a bit to try and understand.  It's not hard for me to think of modern high schoolers (especially girls) who see some of this in their own growing up.  This poem, I'm sure, serves as a reminder to them that rising is possible for them.  
As I've said, I haven't read any of the rest of Angelou's work.  Maybe I should change that.

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