You can read what some might call the official obituary at the New York Times. Here’s a section:
Though her memoirs, which eventually filled six volumes, garnered more critical praise than her poetry did, Ms. Angelou (pronounced AHN-zhe-low) very likely received her widest exposure on a chilly January day in 1993, when she delivered her inaugural poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at the swearing-in of Bill Clinton, the nation’s 42nd president. He, like Ms. Angelou, had grown up in Arkansas.
A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dried tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
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.
Long before that day, as she recounted in “Caged Bird” and its sequels, she had already been a dancer, calypso singer, streetcar conductor, single mother, magazine editor in Cairo, administrative assistant in Ghana, official of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and friend or associate of some of the most eminent black Americans of the mid-20th century, including James Baldwin, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Here’s a poem from which I’ll pull out some of her poetic highs and lows.
Still I Rise
by Maya Angelou
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 backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
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
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Of the poems I found on the internet, and at PoemHunter you can find a fair selection, the poem she read at President Clinton’s inauguration and “Still I Rise” are probably the two better poems. I have to say, she was not a great poet. Some of those stanzas are downright silly. Here’s where she falters in the poem above, and I’ll pick a quatrain where she isn’t being silly: “Did you want to see me broken?/Bowed head and lowered eyes?/Shoulders falling down like teardrops,/Weakened by my soulful cries?” Not only isn’t it interesting rhythmically or metrically, it’s basically all cliché. And the rhyme “eyes/cries” gives it if not quite a nursery rhyme feel, certainly an amateurish feel. Actually the first eight stanzas, quatrains in the form of ballad stanzas, are a poorly chosen form for what she’s articulating. Ballad stanzas are a better fit for narrative poetry; see Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Even the New York Times Obit mentions her weakness as a poet.
Some reviewers expressed reservations about Ms. Angelou’s memoiristic style, calling it facile and solipsistic. Others criticized her poetry as being little more than prose with line breaks. But her importance as a literary, cultural and historical figure was amply borne out by the many laurels she received, including a spate of honorary doctorates.
But then in the last two stanzas of “Still I rise” she breaks from that quatrain form and goes into free verse, and it sparkles. “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.” The language is much fresher and devoid of clichés. The metaphor of her being an ocean is interesting. Why is that?
Let’s look at another poem before I answer that.
by Maya Angelou
I've got the children to tend
The clothes to mend
The floor to mop
The food to shop
Then the chicken to fry
The baby to dry
I got company to feed
The garden to weed
I've got shirts to press
The tots to dress
The can to be cut
I gotta clean up this hut
Then see about the sick
And the cotton to pick.
Shine on me, sunshine
Rain on me, rain
Fall softly, dewdrops
And cool my brow again.
Storm, blow me from here
With your fiercest wind
Let me float across the sky
'Til I can rest again.
Fall gently, snowflakes
Cover me with white
Cold icy kisses and
Let me rest tonight.
Sun, rain, curving sky
Mountain, oceans, leaf and stone
Star shine, moon glow
You're all that I can call my own.
Now there are some mild clichés in there as well, but for the most part it’s also fresh and interesting. Yes, it’s a simple poem without complexity. But in its simplicity she finds rhythm. What is going on in the fresher parts of her poetry is that she finds a natural voice, an oral voice. Her poetry sounds much better articulated as spoken drama than as poetry on the printed page. Indeed where she excels is in oral poetry, where she can rely on the articulation of African-American rhythms to provide a lyricism that doesn’t show up in print, or at least not well. When Angelou tries to write in some poetic form, her lack of skill is evident. So let’s give Angelou her due as an oral poet.
Oral poetry is much maligned in the past century, but at one time it was the most important part of poetry. Prior to the twentieth century, if a poem didn’t sound interesting spoken, it was not regarded highly. For various reasons (partly I feel because pop song has replaced oral poetry as a voiced art) oral poetry has been disparaged since the first world war. Given Angelou’s past as a dancer, singer, and actress, I can’t help feel she considered herself more an entertainer than a formal poet. But I don’t have any evidence for that, and I could be wrong.
I’ve never read any of her memoirs, and until this retrospective on her life these last few days I knew very little. What was repeatedly mentioned was her kindness. Peggy Noonan’s Wall Street Journal blog mentions it. It also references Angelou's Christian faith, and a friend of Angelou’s who said, “She was so close to Heaven,” in the sense she had a mystic side. Here, from an interview on Oprah she talks of love and God almost reminiscent of Dante.
“When I was 16, a boy in high school evinced interest in me, so I had sex with him — just once. And after I came out of that room, I thought, Is that all there is to it? My goodness, I’ll never do that again! Then, when I found out I was pregnant, I went to the boy and asked him for help, but he said it wasn’t his baby and he didn’t want any part of it.
I was scared to pieces. Back then, if you had money, there were some girls who got abortions, but I couldn’t deal with that idea. Oh, no. No. I knew there was somebody inside me. So I decided to keep the baby…
…I’m telling you that the best decision I ever made was keeping that baby! Yes, absolutely. Guy was a delight from the start — so good, so bright, and I can’t imagine my life without him.
The thing is that Angelou’s mother had money. She was well off and could have afforded that abortion. But she chose not to. That altered my perception of her completely. She was a pro-life Liberal. Now that is going against the grain based on what's in the heart, not the head. She will never be regarded as a great poet, but she will always be regarded as a fine human being. And that is so much more important.
Eternal rest, grant unto her O Lord and let perpetual light shine upon your good servant.