Writing Inspiration: Maya Angelou

The world lost a magnificent human being– and writer– yesterday. Maya Angelou, the “people’s poet” passed away at 86. She leaves behind a legacy of 36 books, tackling everything from poetry to autobiography, cookbooks to children’s stories. It’s hard to imagine a world without this powerhouse of a woman. She probed the human experience to its limits.

Angelou first won public acclaim with the release of her autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” in 1969. The book expounds on her childhood in Arkansas, and the trauma she experienced as a 7 year-old victim of rape. Out of the ashes of these dark memories came this deeply influential piece of literature– now a classic on high school and university reading lists. With the 1974 publication of “Gather Together in My Name,” Angelou drew on her experiences as a single mother surviving as a prostitute and fry cook.

Angelou managed to climb her way out of poverty and simultaneously threw herself into civil rights activism and the anti-apartheid movement. She joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild, then moved to Egypt and Ghana while working as a journalist and editor. These varied life experiences exercised a major influence on her later work.†

Her words have soothed and inspired, aroused anger and empathy. As we mourn the loss of this “phenomenal woman,” her poetry lives on in all its beauty and intensity:†

Image credit:†Burns Library, Boston College

When Great Trees Fall

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly.† Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed.† They existed.
We can be.† Be and be
better.† For they existed.

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