Reading poetry rarely falls near the top of most American’s list of favorite recreational activities. Most know more about who won the French Open, the Masters or the Super Bowl than the Presidential Medal of Arts or the Lincoln Medal, with one possible exception.
Last week, perhaps America’s best-known poet, Maya Angelo, died at age 86. A remarkably gifted communicator, she used the arts, especially poetry, to touch the country in ways hardly imaginable.
Angelou did not just play with words. She used her deep voice and unique speaking rhythm to break through the pain, suffering and isolation of modern life. She spoke out on civil rights and women’s rights and social justice in novels as well as poetry, stirring her listeners in a way few other modern poets seem capable of.
Her early life was not easy or beautiful. At age 7, Angelou fell silent. Her mother’s boyfriend raped her. After she testified against him, he was beaten to death by a mob. Since her child’s mind took responsibility for that death, she stopped speaking.
A stronger voice returned six years later. That was the voice America heard at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993, the first poet to participate since Robert Frost in 1961.
That work, “On the Pulse of Morning,” embodied optimism for the inclusiveness that is ever more relevant in this increasingly diverse nation:
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply