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The awfully good activism and terribly bad poetry of Maya Angelou

If you’re wondering about the imperial voice and inane verse currently selling high-end tech in Apple’s newest TV spot, both belonged to late US writer Maya Angelou. Man, that thing is everywhere. I can’t remember a poem being so overworked since WH Auden’s satire was heard as grief in Four Weddings and a Funeral.

But, even when a work is used inaptly, as was Funeral Blues, or when it’s simply dreadful, as is Angelou’s Human Family—“I’ve sailed upon the seven seas/and stopped in every land/I’ve seen the wonders of the world/not yet one common man”—poetry doesn’t get out much. And, when it does appear in a popular context, this most elevated form of English written expression deserves a second look. If only to help us recognise the good stuff.

By the time she died in 2014, Angelou, had given many of her 86 years to writing the terrible stuff (and if you care to defend a couplet like, “Pretty women wonder where my secret lies/I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size”, you’re a more tireless critic than me). She also gave a good deal of time to laudable and intelligent activism, and allow me to praise this quite sincerely.

I do this for two reasons. First, Angelou, a black activist, has been cruelly revised by nice moderates in the same way Nelson Mandela was after his death—they become cuddly and forgiving relics of a battle (mostly white) moderates like to pretend was won and not, as they were, angry revolutionaries, likely still pissed off at the time of their death. Second, if I don’t mention how great Angelou the activist thinker was, someone will have me admitted to a hospital for the dangerously miserable. And I won’t effectively urge you to critically read her poems, which are almost uniformly shit. Unlike her activism.

Her poetry may have been Hallmark, but her mind was that of an informed and courageous mutineer.

Angelou was an on-again off-again radical. She was known not only to the very great Dr Martin Luther King Jr, but to the extraordinary thinker and activist, Malcolm X. These guys were not all “peace, love and understanding” and neither was Angelou, whose commitment to organising for civil rights extended far beyond the greeting card bunkum revisionist moderates now love to recite.

As far back as the early ‘60s, she explored economic solutions to black poverty, and supported Castro’s revolutionary project in Cuba. It has rarely been easy in the west to say, “you know, some of those communist ideas could possibly be quite helpful” and never more difficult than it was for a black woman from the US south from the frozen nadir of the Cold War. And, stuff you if all you know about communism is Stalin and ugly uniforms. That’s your historical oversight, not mine and, certainly not Angelou’s whose poetry may have been Hallmark, but whose mind was that of an informed and courageous mutineer.

In Angelou’s later years, she did something just as disobedient: dared to criticise Israel’s “foreign” policy. This is not easy for anyone in the west, but, it remains, in my view, a moral obligation for those who opposed Apartheid. She did some other decent stuff, too, but you haven’t got all day so please just accept that this voice did more in its less popular incarnation than posthumously sell iPhones for a company that uses “diversity” as a marketing tool, but built its monumental wealth on war and poverty in the Global South.

Actually, the gulf between Apple the super-cuddly brand and Apple the cruel corporate goliath is useful to an understanding of Angelou. Like Apple, Angelou’s core business was wealth—in this case, the equal, rather than the unequal, distribution of it. Like Apple, Angelou used a very bland form of apparently humanistic expression to sell her project.

Apple’s “We Are All the Same” U2-style chorus of nothing continues to please consumers and maintain the advertising industry delusion that a meek message of togetherness is somehow important work. All sorts of people like the “people are people” message and believe that the ecstasy they feel in hearing it or uttering it is enough to buy all the world a coke.

The promise that we can Teach the World to Sing retains its popularity, even if it has proved itself good for nothing but selling smartphones and soft drinks.

Well, it’s not. Folks of all sorts have been going on with this humanism stuff for more than three-hundred years and all it has produced is the conviction that if only we were nicer, we would live In Perfect Harmony; a proposition, even if true, actually impossible to enforce. But, the perpetual promise that we can Teach the World to Sing retains its popularity, even if it has proved itself perpetually good for nothing but selling smartphones and soft drinks.

Look. It’s a lovely idea that if we just tear away the veil of difference to see our shared humanity, we will all come together as one. It’s also one some academics take very seriously, and when they recommend using the maternal, moral language of concern, people like Hillary Clinton listen. Certainly, Maya Angelou listened, preferring fuzzy family friendly stanzas when she went on Oprah, and the plainer language of politics in less public moments. The thing is, this stuff doesn’t actually work to do anything but make us feel good.

As different as were the aims of Apple and Angelou—the former wants more resources for itself and Angelou wanted more resources for others—they are united by a cuddly sort of humanism, which is as to good social outcomes as it is to good poetry.

Image: Maya Angelou speaks at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. Source: Wikipedia

26 responses to “The awfully good activism and terribly bad poetry of Maya Angelou

  1. I really think Philip has eloquently summed up why your critique of Angelou’s poetry is inadequate. You can personally not like Angelou’s poetry, it’s hard to argue with an opinion. However, your reason for dismissing her poetry seems like you’re equating good poetry with radical activism. Like Philip was pointing out, the meaning and weight of her poetry in the Black Community is not something that can be understood by white people as effectively as by people within the Black community. Additionally, her focusing on changing oneself from within is very much a black feminist praxis. Angelous’ poetry is congruent with her activism. It is not pacificying to take care of yourself first and in conjunction institute social and policy change. Especially for black women, putting themselves first is very much a radical act. It seems fine for you to not personally be moved by her poetry, but to dismiss and basically say it is shitty because it doesn’t meet your standards of how to inspire institutional change is insensitive.

  2. Im with you Helen on this. Drek. And pompous at that. And very general. This is poetry as declaration, as the crowd shouting. And its not snotty to say so. Its not great poetry. It’s clunky, obturate and not translucent. What it says is preaching to that choir that real has done all its gonna do for the cause. Poetry is for language users to marvel and language. The chilll of Dickinson, and the warm blood of Bukowski never made anyone go out and save the world. Poetry is no good at making anyone do anything. Its just beautiful. If you were going to save the world, you’re already doing it. And you should be reading that other massively ignored aspect of culture – philosophy. Its philosophy that topples things. And songs. And love and hate. And lies. But not poetry.

  3. Oh for God’s sake Helen, you are showing your ignorance. Have you read ‘I Rise’, or ‘Equality and I Will Be Free’? Her poetry was rousing, rebellious and a call to African Americans to be proud and strong. I haven’t heard the apple ad or the others that you mention, but I strongly disagree with your assessment of Angelou as a poet!

    1. No. I am now showcasing ignorance. Just that my taste in poetry and belief in the “inspirational” power of bland humanistic statements differs from yours.

    2. Sorry, but the author was absolutely right. Angelou needs to be remembered as the activist, not the pompous, Oprah-Speak puppet her legacy has become. That poetry is shite. Though he refuses the mantle of “poet” I prefer Shane MacGowan’s writing any day. Let’s listen to some of that and really hear ostracized anger, disillusionment, and maybe, just maybe, a tiny bit of hope and whole lot of pride. Black people do not have a corner on the market for suffering and abuse at the hands of Those In Power, there is plenty to go around.

  4. I agree this amazing woman wrote some pretty ordinary public poetry in her later years ( but have you heard Serena Williams reading “I rise”? Listen to it!)
    And, mainly, have you read I know why the caged bird sings? If not, cage your mouth about her and her incredible life until you have.
    but I agree she played the public role she eventually had thrust upon her, and read some poor stuff on big occasions. It might have been important that she was there, as who she is and was

    1. Do you understand the context in which she made that remark? Given Clinton’s personal and political style her reamarks make great sense to me.

      1. Yeah that was not so horrendous. It lightened ( sic ) the mood a little. God knows half the nation were screaming their heads off when Ole Bill got the white house.

      1. Yes. It was.
        It’s kind of funny to be defending Angelou as a “true” voice while being unable to distinguish hers from a very different writer’s.
        PS Bill Clinton was a terrible president.

  5. Please, if this is the first time you’ve heard of Maya Angelou, don’t read HR writing about Maya Angelou, read Maya Angelou.

  6. Let’s not forget that the original job of poetry was to communicate words and their meaning in a pleasant memorable and ultimately reliable way to the many human generations preceding the age universal ( more or less ) literacy .

    Angelou managed to accomplish this obsolete artistic task , survive doing it and– perhaps most astonishing of all –become a celebrated public success at it .

    For the last, sublimity is entirely not required . Hallmark is not an inapt analogy , though a homely one that is beside the point .

    Angelou did not need to limit herself to thank you , get well and birthday verses .

    Rather she could be just as accessible about the more difficult and ambiguous issues of awareness and conscience in an increasingly crowded violent and impoverished society .

    So if Angelou made these things read and sound simpler to notice and to consider than to solve , she also did not need to mystify the reader about them nor make them any more difficult than they already are .

    What is so very wrong about that ?

    What s so wrong with that

    1. I believe that humanism required by thus sort of writing is wring and damaging to its own aims. As I said in the piece.

  7. I realise it sounds pretty crappy recited even with Maya’s sonorous tones, but it actually made a very good, rousing, anthemic song when we sang it with a bunch of US LGBTIQ choruses in the US some years ago. Not sure if she wrote it as lyrics, but it works very well as such. The music was very witty.

  8. Ha! Well I learned from this article where the copy for that ad came from. HR, I had no intention of looking it up, not being particularly beholden to multi-national companies that pay bugger all tax and use soft and cuddly imagery and words as marketing.

    And how my alarm bells ring when I hear these adverts used by huge soulless companies to soften their images. I think Telstra is doing some offensive work in that regard, I think they might call it ‘positioning’ in liar liar pants on fire world of advertising.

    I’d prefer that they paid their fair taxes, stopped manufacturing iphones in sweatshops of Asia, and/or paid fair wages with fair working conditions for the purpose of the betterment of society rather than their own bottom line.

    And Ted Markstein, so wonderfully cynical. Did you make that up yourself or is that a quote from somewhere?

  9. Maya Angelo’s verses are written for everyone – not just for snobs and pseudo-intellectuals. The message is clear, the language is appropriate and the honesty is real.

    1. I agree, Carol, that Maya writes for everyone and not for the typical consumer of literature. It is not a lower standard, but a different one and a higher calling. And yet, all her awards and accolades and adoration particularly in the Black American community are not for nothing. I was actually taken aback by the negative reading of Angelou’s poetry. First time I heard or read such a reaction unless by someone who just doesn’t like Angelou period. Perhaps I need to crticially review the critics!

      1. Let’s leave aside the question of my literary snobbery and ask: what has Angelou’s message as conveyed in poetry done?
        Has it been a good reflection of her activism, which is strongly in favour of policy shifts, or has it been a kind of lovely promise of personal growth, which is very popular with white people?
        I’d say the message “we all need to be better people” which informs so much of her verse is very pacifying. Like Oprah. It’s all about The Changes We Make Inside. Which is a comforting message, because it lets actual social change off the hook.
        Why change welfare conditions and imprisonment when all you need to do is change inside?
        As for popular work being a higher calling. Um. Sure. Why not.

        1. Helen, who are you really speaking to? How about, for context, you research and share the impact of Angelou’s poetry within the community for whom she wrote: Black people. That “Phenomenal Woman” is a poem that is still recited by young Black girls in elementary schools all over the country is a testament to the power of her “message as conveyed in poetry.” As paired with her activism, the uplifting of her people was also important, which includes building self-esteem where white beauty standards and oppression have corrupted otherwise healthy interiors. Her verse says a lot more than simply “be better people.” She also says “you are great people despite what anyone else tells you.” She has far too many poems to even simplify them in that way, too. Is she the best poet? To many people, she is more than enough.

          Angelou’s legacy is tied to an artistry founded in and for a specific culture that, yes, other people can read and enjoy but should do so knowing that its original context is its power in the Black community, especially with our children who are very much strengthened by her work, not “pacified.” You have to eventually realize that everyone will have a different reading of her work, but that it is very demeaning to write about her poetry as though her single audience exists in you while you never mention how impactful her work has been for Black readers and listeners who have a tradition of uplifting poetry as well as more overtly revolutionary work. Sometimes, learning how to love ourselves and each other (within our community, mind you) is part of that revolutionary work.

          Angelou’s poetry is an indelible part of her activism. They work in tandem with everything else she has done. There should be no compartmentalizing. She should not be held responsible for white neoliberalism making of her work what it will. That’s what white neoliberals do; they corrupt history for profit. So the question I have is who is going to care enough to preserve her history, all of it?

          1. I have considered the impact of Angelou’s poetry. Of course, such a thing is impossible to assess—you might as well ask how Weimar’s satirical cabaret helped defeat the Nazis. This aside, I maintain my view that it is essentially pacifying work and antithetical to her aims as an activist.
            The fact that kids are reciting something in school is in itself no proof of revolutionary power.

        2. First of all, your literary snobbery is a valid criticism of the article. Secondly, I don’t know why you seem to believe that policy shifts and personal change narratives are at odds. When you are constricted by systemic obstacles and oppressions, control over your own internal narratives and a sense of personal capacity for change is critical to engagement with larger social justice battles. Not to go all Second Wave on you, but the Personal IS Political, and the Political is Personal. So maybe stop policing the personal expression of Black Women.

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