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.