A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Most of the poems I’ve done for this week in the past have been thoses I’ve liked for decades. Though I’ve enjoyed Maya Angelou’s work for years, I had never studied this, her most popular poem, before. One of the strongest memories I have of her is seeing her at President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration, reading in that distinctive voice of hers that poem where she mentioned dinosaurs.
“Still I Rise”, which you can read here , is so wide reaching it can be about poor people and women, as well as blacks. It calls on the tragedies of history and then narrows it down to how that history impacts the individual. For the main voice of the poem is of a determined woman who is meeting the world head on.
She contrasts the injustices which leaves a person broken, crying and downtrodden with things of value; diamonds, oil wells, gold mines, reminders that the person herself has value. And that is the crux of the poem, that the narrator of this poem has a right to confidence, no matter what the world might think. That is still significant today, with the criticism of powerful black women such as Beyonce or Serena Williams which is even worse than insults to influential women of any color. Referring to their sexuality was a bold move from the author, showing the vastly different way we think of successful men and women.
Violence is acknowledged, not just literally, in “nights of terror and fear”, but also in more subtle ways, “shoot me with your words” and “cut me with your eyes”. I was reminded of society in Victorian times, when there was an emphasis on these sorts of nonverbal signals which guided proper behavior. And those mid-century mobs of the early civil rights era, screaming epithets at children integrating schools.
The final verse plunges into slavery, beginning with “the huts of history’s shame”. Huts are cozy, small dwellings, the sort found in many African villages, where people were kidnapped to be sold into slavery. The black ocean can be both the numbers of people involved and also reference to the Middle Passage, the route slave ships took over the Atlantic. The last long line, of being “the dream and the hope of the slave” is wonderfully triumphant; the author is free, independent and educated, all things denied in slavery.
That is a the fulfillment of the hopefulness of the poem, the determination of a person to elevate herself both in circumstances and spirit, through all sorts of dark adversaries. She will rise like air and dust, which is everywhere and like the sun and moon, forces of nature. That promise becomes a crescendo at the very end of the poem, when “I rise” is repeated three times, resolutely and feeling like a Resurrection.
This poem still has relevance and power today. When I read it to my elderly mother, she said it took her breath away. I agree. I think this poem ought to be read in every English class full of students in their early teens.
When Maya Angelou died in 2014, I tried to write a tribute to her, but couldn’t find the words. I am hoping that my review of her most famous poem conveys a small part of the esteem I held her in and what a splendid treasure we had in her.
Originally published in 1978 as the title poem of her third collection of poetry, released by Random House