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Creating meaning from madness: the poetry of Maya Angelou

My_Heroes_-_Maya_Angelou_connected_with_countless_people_through_her_powerful_poetryMaya Angelou was known as a poet of integrity who was not afraid of tough topics and real language that pushes the boundaries of social sensibilities. Out of a difficult childhood she grew strong, using art to become sane and whole. Eventually she served as a role model and mentor to people across the globe. Yet, her poetry demonstrates qualities that A.E. Housman attributes to the “mad” poets in his essay “The Name and Nature of Poetry.” “Meaning is of the intellect, poetry is not,” he writes (85). For Housman, the best poetry speaks to emotion and not to reason because it is produced from the gut and not from the brain (90). With her own anger, joy, and pain, Angelou writes from and speaks to the “pit of the stomach”—for Housman the “seat” of the poetic sensation (90).

However, through her poetry the celebrated author, educator, and activist also gave meaning to her struggles and sent ripples of significance out to generations of people who identify with her courage, her sense of justice, and her compassion. In many ways, the poetry of Maya Angelou makes meaning from madness by creating insight and understanding of the most senseless of human conditions: slavery, hunger, violence, and love. While Housman sees the intellect as a hindrance to pure poetic expression, Angelou demonstrates the power of “mad poetry” as significant social action. The sense of her poetic rants and rhapsodies is to create a bond of understanding on an emotional level—in her own words, to show people that “we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike” (Collected Poems 224).

In his essay, Housman recalls the words of Plato: “He who without the Muses’ madness in his soul comes knocking at the door of poesy and thinks that art will make him anything fit to be called a poet, finds that the poetry which he indites in his sober senses is beaten hollow by the poetry of madmen” (85). For Housman, the “muses’ madness” is characterized by language that “answers to nothing real” and is best demonstrated by the English poets of the eighteenth century who were insane in the “age of sanity and intelligence” (86). Of these poets Blake is the most “poetic,” according to Housman, because his poetry weaves exciting threads of language that resist intellectual clarity (87). Housman finds that “nothing except poetic emotion is perceived and matters” in verses such as these from Blake:

Calling the lapsed soul
And weeping in the evening dew;
That might control
The starry pole,
And fallen, fallen light renew. (qtd. in Housman 87)

Similar emotive lines can be found in Angelou’s poetry. “Brief Innocence” describes a “half-mad city” at dawn: “nuzzling / the breast of morning / crooning” (Collected Poems 213). This use of poetic imagery creates nothing more than the sweet sensation of daybreak similar to the way Blake captures the nostalgia of twilight.

In these lines from “Remembering,” Angelou uses nonsensical, haunting language to illustrate human weakness:

Soft grey ghosts crawl up my sleeve
to peer into my eyes
while I within deny their threats
and answer them with lies. (Collected Poems 14)

Here again, it’s not the mind she engages, but rather the physical senses. Being fooled by one’s own recollections is a universal human predilection. These moments of self-betrayal crawl on the skin as do the “soft grey ghosts” of Angelou’s poem. Once asked to define poetry, Housman could only point to the sensations it evokes: the goose bumps, a shudder, sudden tears, tight throat, or a sensation of being struck as if by lightening. He calls these the physical “symptoms” that poetry provokes (90). The imagery of Angelou’s poetry creates this visceral effect. Yet, the biographical context of her poetry makes those words reach deeper into the reader’s conscience. Themes of guilt and innocence in her poems take on broader significance as they relate to her own experiences of racism and abuse made known through her internationally acclaimed biography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Angelou spent her young years with her grandmother in a small, racially charged Arkansas town. After moving to St. Louis to live with her mother, she was sexually assaulted and spent almost five years of her childhood without speaking after the man who abused her was murdered: she was convinced that her words had killed him (Collected Autobiographies 69).

Before she became known as a poet, Angelou’s worked as a dancer and singer in clubs and on Broadway. These experiences—years of listening without speaking, using her body and voice to express herself—no doubt contributed to the physical and emotional sensitivity that makes her poetry “mad,” both in content and in form. Like jazz music, her poems often progress rhythmically and lyrically, only to switch or stop on a sudden beat. In a poem called “Artful Pose” Angelou writes about her own inspiration as a poet:

My pencil halts
and will not go
along that quiet path.
I need to write
of lovers false
and hate
and hateful wrath
quickly. (Collected Poems 90)

This playful and defiant style speaks to the emotional aesthetic pleasure Housman describes. One can imagine the dark led of the pencil etching paper as Angelou scribbles with “wrath.” Housman describes the act of writing poetry as a “bubbling up” of verses after being taken by a “sudden and unaccountable emotion” (90). Similarly, strong emotions seem to be Angelou’s fountain of inspiration: hate and fear, but also hope and determination. Poems like “Chicken-Licken” and “Starvation” move readers with their raw insights into sexual terror and poverty: “When she saw a bed / locks clicked / in her brain,” and “The slack walls of my purse, pulsing / pudenda, await you with / a new bride’s longing” (Collected Poems 97, 200). Other poems turn anger into conviction. One of Angelou’s most popular poems has become an anthem for many people who strive to overcome an onerous past:

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise (Collected Poems 163)

Angelou’s invincible spirit takes up every ill of humankind and turns it into art using the deep, physical poetic sense that Housman promotes as true poetry. “Still I Rise,” contrasts the darkness of hate with the daring of hope: “I am the dream and the hope of the slave / I rise” (Collected Poems 163). In a video interview, Angelou once expressed her desire to connect people through truth: “If I tell the truth about a black American situation, a young Jewish boy with braces on his teeth in the Bronx, or a middle-class white woman in Des Moines, Iowa, will understand exactly what I mean” (“Dr. Angelou Honored”).

Angelou is a twentieth century poet who recognizes the limits of reason and intelligence that Housman says guided the eighteenth century poets to failed poetry. In interviews after the election of Barack Obama, Angelou says of the America that elected the first black president, “We’re growing up!” (“Dr. Angelou Reflects”) America grew up with the poetic voice of Maya Angelou helping it to confront its deep scars of racism and sexism. She turned ugliness into prose and lent hope to regret through her art. By bringing all the passion and the emotion of a “mad poet” to the darker side of history she offers a creative solution for the future. The triumph of her poetic courage as a distinctly American poet is most clearly illustrated in the inaugural poem she wrote in 1993:

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow,
I will give you no hiding place down here. (Collected Poems 270)

For Housman, poetry must spring forth from madness, a non-rational and meaningless lyrical place. This initial compulsory wave of inspiration, even if later crafted with the mind, is the true source and nature of poetry (91). With the force of a mad poet, Angelou gives her readers “no hiding place.” She opens all human wounds and makes them beautiful opportunities for healing. As is evident in her poem “The Lesson,” even death could not dampen her poetic sensibilities:

I keep on dying again.
Veins collapse, opening like the
Small fists of sleeping
Memory of old tombs,
Rotting flesh and worms do
Not convince me against
The challenge. The years
And cold defeat live deep in
Lines along my face.
They dull my eyes, yet
I keep on dying,
Because I love to live. (Collected Poems 140)

The last two lines of “The Lesson” are symbolic of the unique madness of the poet, who embraces the ultimate paradox of experience—dying because one loves to live. While Housman is correct in observing that sober logic can’t produce a moving poem, poetry such as Angelou’s, which is cast on a backdrop of personal and historical human struggles, failures and triumphs, can give madness meaning on a grander scale.

Works Cited
 Angelou, Maya. The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou. New York: Random House, 1994. Print.
 Angelou, Maya. The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou. New York: Random House, 2004. Print.
 “Dr. Angelou Honored by Oprah and Denzel Washington.” Maya Angelou: Global Renaissance Woman. Dr. Maya Angelou, The Official Website, 2014. Web. 5 June 2014.
 “Dr. Angelou Reflects on President Obama’s Victory.” Maya Angelou: Global Renaissance Woman. Dr. Maya Angelou, The Official Website, 2014. Web. 5 June 2014.
 Housman, A.E. “The Name and Nature of Poetry.” The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 85-91.