BOOK REVIEW: Maya Angelou: The Complete Poetry by Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou: The Complete PoetryMaya Angelou: The Complete Poetry by Maya Angelou
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This posthumous collection gathers together 180 poems of Maya Angelou. A collection of collections, it amasses six of Angelou’s collections as well as four stand-alone poems, and is said to represent the entirety of Angelou’s published and publicly released poetry. (Actually, it’s said be all of her poetry, but I suspect even a poetic genius like Angelou had notebooks of fragments and pieces with which she never made peace.) Her famed collections: “Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Diiie,” “Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well,” “And Still I Rise,” “Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing,” and “I Shall Not Be Moved” are presented as released.

Angelou’s poetry tends toward the playful and melodious even when its topics are angry or distressing. She favors short pieces that have rhyme and rhythm that please the ear—at least in those early collections for which she is most recognized. Reading the poetry chronologically, I noticed a shift toward a little bit longer free verse poetry—though always with attention to the issue of sound (if not to creating song-like sound.) As this was my first reading of this collection, some of this perception of shifting length and style may be an illusion created by the fact that the freestanding pieces are toward the end, and they tend to have been released for special occasions that called for longer run times. But maybe she felt that poems of dissent and social commentary ultimately called for a more discordant quality. Delivering a jeremiad with pop tune catchiness can feel as though it undermines the message—though it also makes a commentary about the nature of being underdog.

I don’t want to suggest that Angelou’s work doesn’t capture the happy and hopeful as well as the daunting, because it is. But poets deal in emotion, and that means confronting dark topics such as slavery, racism, domestic violence, etc. Her use of dialect language breathes authenticity into her poems and builds the emotional weight of them, which often supports the song-like quality. And there is plenty of precedent in music for delivering hard material in a melodious package.

I’d recommend this collection to poetry readers. It’s powerful and poignant, and makes a beautiful sound.

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