Phenomenal voice

Phenomenal voice


Phenomenal voice

Maya Angelou sang out to the world in a commanding 

literary voice, writes Elizabeth Alexander, and narrates aninteresting phone conversation with the renowned poet .

A friend recently directed me to the Modern Library’s one-volume reissue of Maya Angelou’s six memoirs, which renders her many lives as one life, continuous in 1,167 pages. Although I had read the memoirs individually and sometimes more than once, I could not put that entire life down.

She was a girl who was raped and did not speak for years after, so cognizant was she of the power of words as to believe they could actually make things happen. And so, with words, she rendered not only her own life visible but also nothing short of a history of black social movements in the second half of the 20th century and the participation of a woman, and women, who helped make it happen, against a million odds.

The intimate lives of such women were not considered the stuff of memoir on a grand scale until the success of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which found a readership of millions. The success of Angelou’s memoir helped clear a path for the boom in black women’s writing, and the success of writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, Gloria Naylor and Toni Cade Bambara, among many others.


She wrote about being a single mother raising her son, her deep love for her brother Bailey and her complex respect for her mother. She wrote of collective attempts to make social change and the nightmares of assassination and setback. Her literary voice combined a formality influenced by Shakespeare and Dunbar with the pithy, direct wisdom that is the bounty of the African-American women’s oral tradition.

She was an internationalist, a black woman from a small place who belonged
 everywhere. She was always committed to poetry, its precision and music but also its bardic tradition, the way people told their communal stories across time. She was a poet who wrote to be both read and recited, in the old-fashioned sense of recitation in black churches and schools and around kitchen tables. Poems were meant to be spoken aloud; it was understood that poetry emerged from the body and needed to make sense in the open mouth, as song.

I never met Maya Angelou, but I have a story. When I was named President Barack Obama’s inaugural poet after his 2008 election, Angelou called me, the second poet to read for a presidential inaugural calling the fourth, her sense of history and of community fully evident in the gesture.

Meeting her

Before she said her name, I recognised the voice: lustrous, deliberate, precise, a diction well known to me from countless elders. Though by her own account she was not a great singer, her voice had a singer’s colouration as well as the captivating, unhasty pace of someone used to commanding attention, a star. She spoke in the rich chest-voice of a grandmother singing a song at bedtime.

Did she call me ‘child’? I felt like she did, for her words and voice drew me close. I was attempting to write the inaugural poem — agonising, spinning in the thickets with the task at hand. We spoke for a good long while. I do not remember the substance of what she said, only the even, reassuring tone of her voice that made this task seem possible.

“If you have a song to sing, who are you not to open your mouth and sing to the world?” That is a sentiment I have often heard attributed to her. Singing your song, in her worldview, should be as natural as breathing, even if, as she did, you struggled to come to voice. And poetry was as close as human beings could get to song. I asked her at the end of the conversation if she would be coming to Washington for Inauguration Day. She gave a long laugh. “Oh, no, my dear. I’ve done that before. I shall turn on my television, open a bottle of wine and enjoy a potage of my own preparation. And I shall laugh, and cry and sing!”

Reading into her words

So much in those sentences! “I’ve done that before”: Life is to be experienced, one event after the next, leaving room for new possibilities and never getting stuck in the past. “I shall”: Such exquisite formality married with motherwit characterised her prose as well as her poetry, formality that says, I have mastered the language and its elocution, and there are stakes in that mastery from people who were assumed to be unworthy of culture and citizenship. And “potage”! Such pleasure in words, for isn’t “potage” more interesting and unexpected than ‘soup’?

In A Song Flung Up to Heaven she asks an essential question: “How did it happen that we could nurse a nation of strangers, be maids to multitudes of people who scorned us, and still walk with some majesty and stand with a degree of pride?” And then, in partial answer, “We had come so far from where we started, and weren’t nearly approaching where we had to be, but we were on the road to becoming better.”