Beyond the Cage: Maya Angelou

January 1, 2018 Arts & Culture5

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. – Maya Angelou

It’s January, and we are at the beginning of a new year! Amidst the fireworks, partying, and New York ball-drop, surely many of us are scribbling down resolutions for the new year. Some of us will resolve to lose weight, adhere to an exercise schedule, improve our work ethic, or read clay more often. Some of us may have a more complex resolve – for example, facing the world more boldly, a quality necessary to pull off meaningful self-expression. Sharing your work with others often feels like a difficult decision due to fear of criticism. Let me introduce you to a woman who triumphed over such fear: Maya Angelou!  Although many know poetry for its reputation as being the work of overly melancholy men, Angelou shatters this conception with her determined and strong poems.

Life Doesn’t Frighten Me

Shadows on the wall
Noises down the hall
Life doesn’t frighten me at all

Bad dogs barking loud
Big ghosts in a cloud
Life doesn’t frighten me at all

Mean old Mother Goose
Lions on the loose
They don’t frighten me at all

Dragons breathing flame
On my counterpane
That doesn’t frighten me at all.

I go boo
Make them shoo
I make fun
Way they run
I won’t cry
So they fly
I just smile
They go wild

Life doesn’t frighten me at all.

Tough guys fight
All alone at night
Life doesn’t frighten me at all.

Panthers in the park
Strangers in the dark
No, they don’t frighten me at all.

That new classroom where
Boys all pull my hair
(Kissy little girls
With their hair in curls)
They don’t frighten me at all.

Don’t show me frogs and snakes
And listen for my scream,
If I’m afraid at all
It’s only in my dreams.

I’ve got a magic charm
That I keep up my sleeve
I can walk the ocean floor
And never have to breathe.

Life doesn’t frighten me at all
Not at all
Not at all.

Life doesn’t frighten me at all.

The magnetic rhyme of this poem contributes much to the beauty and power of its implications. It unusually resembles a nursery rhyme, featuring repetition and imagery suggestive of a child’s world. Like many of Angelou’s pieces, this poem utilizes its rhyme scheme to create an enjoyable rhythm. The main theme of the poem is the emphasis on courage, as the speaker continually states that “Life doesn’t frighten me at all” and describes confronting and defeating many obstacles, such as “mean old Mother Goose.” Many of the examples illustrate that even a child can overcome fears by facing them bravely, such as when the speaker says “boo, make them shoo.” In another instance, the speaker describes fear as only a state of mind: “If I’m afraid at all/ It’s only in my dreams.” Thus, the speaker appears to push aside fear of obstacles and is able to overcome them.
However, the repeated protestations echo of “whistling in the dark.” Perhaps the child is not as fearless as the speaker says, and the repetition of “Life doesn’t frighten me at all” is in fact the “magic charm” that the child keeps up her sleeve. Maybe the poem’s deeper meaning is that even if one doesn’t feel fearless, once can still triumph by approaching obstacles with a fearless attitude. This interpretation accords words great power as a “magic charm” that can allow someone to walk the (metaphorical) ocean floor and never have to breathe.

Angelou’s “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me” accords words great power as a “magic charm” that can allow someone to walk the ocean floor and never have to breathe.

Caged Bird

A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

This poem, just like Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, has beautiful rhythm and attention-attracting imagery. Angelou juxtaposes the free bird, who flies on breezes and claims the sky, with the caged bird, who can hardly see through the bars of his rage and stands on the grave of his dreams. Angelou makes us feel the happiness and freedom of the free bird, and the sadness, anger, and misery of the caged bird. The only part of the caged bird that is free is his voice, and by opening his throat to sing, Angelou shows us the resilience of the bird. This bird ultimately represents the black people of the American 1960s: surrounded by a democracy and people glorying in freedom, but still discriminated against, segregated, and restricted everywhere they turned. Even though she is ostensibly speaking only of birds, Angelou turns this poem into an unexpected and powerful political commentary.

for the caged bird sings of freedom ~ Maya Angelou

Night Vision
I let the cold suffuse my skin
Allow the dark to rush over me
Stare up into the sky
It is night and the stars are out.

Fear not the dark
It is merely the absence of the sun
Do not fear the sun
It is far less than the dark

Look around
I am not unmoored
There are rocks beneath my feet
Fences around me

They may seem to chain me down
But they set me free
No one can rise
Without ground

Without foundation
Without the flowers
Beside their feet
To push off against

And besides
There is moonlight
Feel its cold touch
And do not shy away

And know
I cannot be kept down
Not even if the bullets are coming
Hard and fast

Not even if the slings and arrows
Of misfortune
Are pounding my skin, still
I must rise.

Above is a poem I wrote that features themes reminiscent of those found in Maya Angelou’s poems, such as self-expression and daring. I intentionally left this poem ambiguous so that it could symbolize anything the reader imagines, ranging from revenge to ambition. It was inspired by a day in which I had to water my garden at night on account of forgetting to earlier. It was dark, but there was moonlight, and I hadn’t brought a flashlight. While standing still for a few minutes to let my eyes adjust to the darkness, I looked around my darkened garden and thought of this poem, which I wrote down a few days later.

They may seem to chain me down
But they set me free
No one can rise
Without ground

~ Rachel Shey

How will you rise to the challenge? It’s your turn! Post in the comments below a poem of your own, perhaps inspired by the brave spirit of Maya Angelou’s pieces.

Sources:

Angelou, Maya. “Caged Bird by Maya Angelou.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48989/caged-bird.

Poetry Activity Printable: “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me” by Maya Angelou, www.edhelper.com/poetry/Life_Doesnt_Frighten_Me_by_Maya_Angelou.htm.

5 thoughts on “Beyond the Cage: Maya Angelou

  1. Rachel Shey

    January 2, 2018

    Yay! I’m so happy I got featured.
    Recently I read this article about how poetry can convey the emotion of joy very effectively, more effectively than prose: https://www.wsj.com/articles/review-the-joy-of-poetry-1514571042
    Hope you enjoy it!

  2. Maria Copeland

    January 6, 2018

    Your artwork is so lovely, Rachel!

    • Rachel Shey

      January 6, 2018

      Thank you Maria!

  3. Hannah Wong

    January 8, 2018

    Nice, Trigger (:

    • Rachel Shey

      January 8, 2018

      Thanks!

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