Friday, May 30, 2014

The Living Dead

Honouring our poetic ancestors

Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

Usually this column honours poetic ancestors from the more distant past, but of course we stand on the shoulders of all the poets who have preceded us: the great and the obscure, the ancient and the recent. Maya Angelou, who died on May 28 aged 86, was by no means obscure. Perhaps we must leave it to time and future generations to decide on the greatness of recent and/or contemporary poets, but the word has certainly been applied to her already, even while she was still alive. I feel sure that she will, in any case, be a living memory for a very long time to come.

What we do know is that she was a beloved and influential writer who touched the hearts of many, inspired many, and was chosen to read her work at the inauguration of an American President. That was Bill Clinton, and you can hear (and see) her recitation on YouTube. The current President, Barack Obama, has paid tribute to her on her passing, describing her as "one of the brightest lights of our time ... a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman" (referring, of course, to her own poem, "Phenomenal Woman").

I, too, just now referred to her as writer rather than poet, because both her poetry and her prose writings were loved and influential. In fact she is probably known best of all for her series of autobiographies, beginning with the acclaimed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. And she was widely acknowledged as a "Renaissance woman", being also a singer, dancer and actress; a playwright, producer and director; an educator, historian and activist. Among other causes, she was passionately dedicated to the overthrow of racial discrimination and the empowerment of women. I think it's fair to say she tried to give voice to the downtrodden of any race, gender or circumstance. I believe it's true to say she was a great hero.

The details of her life are well-known, and at present there are obituaries galore being written (just Google) so I won't repeat that information here except to note that she received many awards and honorary degrees. Although I never encountered her in person, we are lucky to live in the global village. Thanks to the media, many could get a sense of her vibrant presence.

Which of her poems to share with you here? I've chosen the one she wrote on the death of Michael Jackson (which you can also listen to on YouTube). Jackson was a controversial figure, though Angelou clearly loved and admired him, as so many did. But, apart from specific biographical details, these words could well apply to her own life and death:

We Had Him

Beloveds, now we know that we know nothing
Now that our bright and shining star can slip away from our fingertips like a puff of summer wind

Without notice, our dear love can escape our doting embrace
Sing our songs among the stars and and walk our dances across the face of the moon

In the instant we learn that Michael is gone we know nothing
No clocks can tell our time and no oceans can rush our tides
With the abrupt absence of our treasure

Though we are many, each of us is achingly alone
Piercingly alone
Only when we confess our confusion can we remember that he was a gift to us and we did have him

He came to us from the Creator, trailing creativity in abundance
Despite the anguish of life he was sheathed in mother love and family love and survived and did more than that

He thrived with passion and compassion, humor and style
We had him
Whether we knew who he was or did not know, he was ours and we were his
We had him

Beautiful, delighting our eyes
He raked his hat slant over his brow and took a pose on his toes for all of us and we laughed and stomped our feet for him

We were enchanted with his passion because he held back nothing
He gave us all he had been given

Today in Tokyo, beneath the Eiffel Tower, in Ghana's Blackstar Square, in Johannesburg, in Pittsburgh, in Birmingham, Alabama and Birmingham England, we are missing Michael Jackson

But we do know that we had him
And we are the world. 

Thankfully, Maya Angelou lived a great deal longer than poor Michael. She too was a global icon and there is great mourning worldwide for our worldwide loss. But we do know that we had her!

(The wonderful, joyous photo comes from her official website.)


  1. a wonderful choice in who to honour...between maya and nikki giovanni they were both early influences on my poetry...i cried earlier this week when i heard of her death...a nice honor rosemary

  2. Excellent choice. She might have been writing about how I feel about her.

  3. What a beautiful and well-deserved tribute, Rosemary!

  4. Rosemary, how wonderful to read your tribute to this phenomenal woman. And I love her poem for Michael, which I had not read. I remember how I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings affected me when I first read it many years ago. I am going to reread it again in her honor. She lived well. She shows us how much one person can do. Thank you for this, Rosemary.

  5. This is a wonderful tribute, Rosemary! Maya Angelou also wrote a great poem when Nelson Mandela died. She recites it on YouTube too.

    1. Thank you Gabriella. I don't know that one and shall hunt it up immediately.

  6. Beautiful tribute to an amazing lady. Excellent choice of poem to include. Well done, Rosemary!

  7. What a beautiful tribute, Rosemary! I have a copy of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but never got to read it. Its imperative, I must read it now....
    Thanks for sharing this beautiful tribute.

  8. Beautiful Rosemary! I penned a little acrostic for Maya, if you want to stop by and see

  9. That is a beautiful photo, I agree. Her outfit looks very much like the one she wore when she visited Unity of Melbourne. In her presence, everyone bubbled.

    I have only recently discovered Maya's powerful poetry and will enjoy exploring it more.


    1. How blessed you were to have had such an experience! Thanks for the comment.

  10. Many thanks to everyone for the feedback. I am glad but not surprised that you share my admiration for her.

  11. Wonderful tribute and nice choice of poem. My favourite however is Still I Rise.

  12. She was a phenomenal woman indeed.


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