Poems about the Effect of Family Members
There were several characters that Maya describes as having had an influential effect on her. In the different periods of her life, different people played important roles on forming her character and personality. The ones I will examine are family members that were involved with Maya in the early part of her life. I will look at two, her mother, Vivian Baxter, and her uncle, Willie. While her mother sounds like an obvious choice, Maya did not live with her mother for most of her childhood. Despite that, Vivian was still vital to Maya’s development. The second, a less obvious choice, is an uncle she lived with while she was away from her mother. In fact she lived with her grandmother and her uncle also lived there. From watching him and his acceptance of his difficult life Maya learned many valuable lessons.
Avec Merci, Mother
The first family member to be considered is Maya’s mother, Vivian. The poem Maya wrote about her mother is entitled “Avec Merci, Mother”. This poem intimates the ambivalent way children respond to their mother. This perspective is important because many of my students have ambiguous feelings toward their parents. While some blame their parents for the mistakes they made, other students idolize them and refuse to acknowledge the negatives. To admit that your parent made mistakes that affected your life in a negative manner, while still holding them dear as a parent is a difficult task. Angelou struggles with these emotions with her mother.
The poem ‘Avec Merci, Mother’ highlights many of the characteristics of Angelou’s mother that one finds in her autobiographies. For instance the poem begins with an explanation of her mother’s aura, which her children held in such high regard. The comment in the second stanza that refers to genuflection shows Maya’s mother’s gracious acceptance and expectation of the worshipful attitude. This is comparable to passages that occur in the autobiographies whenever Maya talks about the role her mother played in her childhood. When Vivian is mentioned it is with a sense of awe. Instead of being turned off by her mother’s aloof, superior attitude, Maya and her brother, Bailey, quickly begin to believe that their mother deserves to be held in the high esteem she demands. For instance when Maya and Bailey first meet their mother, Maya says “It is remarkable how much truth there is in the two expressions: ‘struck dumb’ and ‘love at first sight’. My mother’s beauty literally assailed me.” (Angelou, 1969 p. 49). The awe grew from there. From this awe came a sense of confusion that Maya would need to work out for the rest of her life. One the one hand this woman was above reproach and indeed did some of her motherly duties exceptionally well, however on the other hand there were many times that she was unapproachable and not around when Maya needed her.
The fourth stanza of the poem alludes to a male who cries over Vivian, and the inability to capture her essence. The mother responds with a patronizing glance, and notes the father and son resemblance. This individual is most likely Maya’s brother Bailey. His adoration of his mother was greater than Maya’s. Bailey didn’t call his mother any of the terms that are normally used, such as mom, mommy or ma. Instead he referred to her as “Mother Dear” until the circumstance of proximity softened the phrase’s formality to “Muh Dear,” and finally to “M’Deah.” (Angelou, 1969 p. 57). In fact Vivien was the first person to wedge between the strong bond that held Maya and Bailey together. This also added to Maya’s conflicted emotions about her mother.
Vivian’s flip reaction to males crying over her shows her attitude toward men and their influence over her. The attitude is of course men would cry over her. She exudes emotional as well as physical strength. In Angelou’s autobiography there are many examples given to highlight her mother’s strength. One example of Vivian’s physical strength was when she took a billy club and “crashed the man’s head… enough to leave him just this side of death” (Angelou, 1969 p. 55) because this man had dared to curse at her. She got her revenge even though he was physically large and had a bad reputation.
Knowing some of the history of Maya and Vivian’s relationship I will be able to present the poem to my students showing conflicting views. These views will be readily understandable as we frequently feel mixed feelings about people. Reading the poem as viewing Vivian in a positive manner, the title “Avec Merci, Mother” seems to be Maya’s method of thanking her mother for the strong role model she provided. Maya grew into a woman who was not scared to face challenges. Although she did act stupidly under the influence of love, Maya typically had the upper hand in her relationships with men and did not allow them the power to ruin her life. She learned to assume an air of self-confidence and self-sufficiency even if she didn’t feel it, as she had seen her mother do. Several times in the autobiographies Maya wrote of difficult situations in which she would think how her mother would have handled herself, then act accordingly.
Read with an air of irony, the title gives the poem a much different feeling. Her mother was always shrouded in a cloud of mystery and there were many times when Maya felt an unconscious resentment toward her. The first was her abandonment of Maya and Bailey. They were given to a grandmother to live with for ten formative years, from ages three to thirteen and four to fourteen respectively. Then there was the allegiance switch of Bailey from Maya to her mother. While he did not give up on Maya, he let it be known that Mother Dear was the most important. The worst let down was when Vivian’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, was allowed to sexually molest and ultimately rape Maya in her mother’s bed. Throughout Maya’s life the slights continued.
This poem will allow students entry on several levels. All have had experiences, good and bad, with mother figures. This will lead to discussion regarding the strengths and weaknesses of people and how character can influence others. Another level will be reached by discussing the change in perspective and tone of the poem. Sarcasm is a trait many high school students are familiar with. Any argument over semantics and tone is sure to ignite t heir interest. Lastly, the strength of the words coupled with their accessibility will make this poem a good one for analyzing.
Another poem about a family member is entitled simply “Willie”. Willie is Maya’s uncle. She lived with him in Stamps, Arkansas when she and Bailey left their parents to go live with their grandmother, Annie Henderson. Maya lived there for ten years, from age three to thirteen. Uncle Willie lived with his mother because he was limited in his wage earning powers due to his physical impairments.
As I would point out to my students, the first stanza provides a description of the physical characteristics of Willie. At the age of three, Willie was dropped by a babysitter and suffered physical deformities as a result. The poem describes him as crippled but doesn’t give the full picture. When teaching this poem, I will have students refer to the autobiography in which Maya explains Willie’s handicap in further details. She tells of his “high-topped shoes and the cane, his uncontrollable muscles and thick tongue” (Angelou, 1969 p. 11). The description in the first stanza is juxtaposed with his attitude. Even though troubled with a body that doesn’t work, his attitude is that he just keeps going. This was very influential on Maya; she mentions it extensively in her autobiography as well as writing a poem in his honor.
The second stanza explains further the difficulties Uncle Willie faced. Frequent loneliness was a curse he was forced to accept being unable to marry or socialize in a normal fashion. Despite that, he doesn’t give up and turn inward. The reference to the leaders may refer to the civil rights fight that Maya was actively involved in. Although Willie “was the whipping boy and butt of jokes of the underemployed and underpaid” (Angelou, 1969 p. 9) he was still willing to support the leaders as he saw them struggle to emerge from the undesirable social conditions they endured. I will ask students to think about times they felt overwhelmed and unable to succeed. Then we will look at Willie’s strengths.
The next stanza gives a sense of hope. Acknowledging the given physical and emotional injuries associated with life, Angelou then illustrates the undefeated attitude in referring to spring and children. Both spring and children bring to mind freshness, newness and endless possibilities. By pairing pain with hope, Angelou shows that the spirit is more powerful then the physical constraints of the body. It is through this spirit that Uncle Willie is able to have a strong effect on Maya as well as the world.
The fourth stanza also shows the slights he faced juxtaposed with the hope of the future. As a crippled black man, Willie was frequently dehumanized. By viewing him as an ‘other’, whether it be black or crippled, individuals were able to categorize him and avoid dealing with their own insecurities. After showing this phenomenon, Angelou then writes of children’s games. Children will always play, and their games get passed along and shared with ease. This offers hope for the integration of the races. Adults are more resistant to change then children, and hope for the future is frequently placed upon the shoulders of those too young to realize the struggles to come. Angelou was very involved in the civil rights movement, but was wise enough to know people were too resistant for there to be an overnight solution.
The next stanza has moved from spring to summer. This shows the passage of time and the poem then moves to autumn in the next stanza. This shows the interminability of the racial issues they face, as well as the optimistic attitude Willie maintains. This stanza also mentions an unnamed force that threatens his comfort. While there were numerous like situations, this aligns with one situation Maya recounts in her autobiography that I would share with my students. One day the old sheriff rode up to warn her grandmother of an incident that occurred between a white woman and a black men. The warning was meant to protect Willie by getting him into hiding. As a black man, he was as apt as any other to be pulled in and punished for the alleged act that was committed. He was forced fold his physically deformed body into the potato storage bin and hide all night. Angelou says that Uncle Willie “moaned the whole night through as if he had, in fact, been guilty of some heinous crime” (Angelou, 1969 p. 15). Living with the constant threat of unfair persecution is a weight that could easily pull a person down. Instead, Uncle Willie’s spirit continued to rise above the worldly issues he confronted daily. His spirit is shown in the poem as the unrelenting spirit necessary through generations to keep fighting toward equality.
Maya learned from Willie’s attitude. There were many times she felt utterly defeated, but giving up and quitting was never an option. This is a powerful message for students to hear. To see an example of a successful woman who faced parental abandonment, poverty, teenage pregnancy and struggles for money that led to prostitution, able to strive and continue to demand the best of herself and others is compelling. Maya didn’t write herself off on any of these roadblocks, but found an alternative way around them. By using Willie as a comparable individual that strove for personal excellence in the face of hardship, it will help to make the curriculum less tailored to females.
Poems about Events in Angelou’s Life
In order to understand Maya Angelou at all, it is important to know some of the situations she experienced and how she dealt with them. Her autobiographies are filled with difficult situations and her strategies for coping with them. Her autobiographies are not written to make the reader believe she is a strong woman, instead they show her struggle in trying to carve out a life for herself and her son. It is through these struggles that her strength of character emerges. By allowing the reader to experience the nitty gritty with her, they take away the sense of her strength without her directly telling them. These two poems are typical events that occur in lives and show Angelou’s attitude towards them.
This poem is shorter then most of Angelou’s. Only two stanzas, it shows the conflicting attitudes toward the monthly payment of rent. The first stanza shows her working, living well, and paying rent without difficulty. In the second stanza, the narrator is out of work and unable to pay the rent.
‘Contemporary Announcement’ is powerful for several reasons. First is the way it corresponds with Angelou’s life. Later in her life, while she was supporting her son, there were times between jobs when she struggled to pay her bills. Her solutions were varied and usually worked out. Sometimes she would end up going home, she found herself starting off her performing career in a strip club, to performing in cabarets. While Angelou worked as a cabaret singer, she and Guy moved frequently to follow the jobs. She writes, “When the money was plentiful, we lived in swank hotels and called room service. At other times we stayed in boarding houses. I strung sheets as room dividers, and cooked our favorite food illegally on a two-burner hot place.” (Angelou, 1981 p. 32). They say necessity is the mother of invention. Without the need to support her son, Angelou may not have found herself pushed in the many directions she was ultimately able to find success.
This poem is powerful also because it gives a glimpse into a way of living that is transient. Not knowing if you are going to be able to pay your monthly bills, it is hard to have a sense of permanence. Without the sense of fitting into your environment it is difficult to have the strength to fight for your beliefs. While focusing on paying rent, an experience common across race and gender lines, it taps into the deeper sense of belonging. Written during a time of great racial conflict, the poem shows the importance of having that sense of what it means to belong. My students are living in a different time, with different issues. However the common bond between is not hard to find. This concept is one that is crucial to discuss. It can be dealt with on several levels. The most topical being not having a place to live. Educators are taught that without the basic life necessities taken care of, food and water, shelter, and safety, learning cannot take place. I have watched students drop out of school because they were kicked out of their homes and did not have a secure place to reside. My students may have experienced this first hand, but if not all have known someone it has happened to. Students will want to discuss a variety of issues that relate to this idea. On a deeper level, if these needs are not being met and energy is being spent on surviving, then character development and growth cannot occur. How can an individual be expected to stand up for their or anyone else’s rights when they are struggling to find money for food or rent? This question will fit nicely into our school’s philosophy.
While written in a direct manner of speech, the poem is still able to show the emotional toll that comes along with this unsure existence. In the first stanza the narrator has a sense of pride and wants to share their success with the world. When an individual feels that way it is easy to conquer fears. The second stanza, however, shows an individual who is stuck cowering in the dark, hoping no one notices them. Living life in this fashion makes it near impossible to think about issues outside of the immediate ones you face, such as finding money to pay the bills so you don’t face eviction. It also takes a toll on a person’s character. When the solution for finding money for food and bills is against your moral codes, be it welfare, begging or prostitution, the real depth of character emerges. Maya refused to rely on welfare. Her family taught her too much pride. Begging was not an option and she wasn’t any good at prostitution. Instead of caving on her beliefs she upheld her character and found ways to survive.
This poem aligns with Angelou’s experiences, but is used as a tool to explore deeper issues. Many of my students may find themselves struggling with the month to month concern of paying rent and buying food. Because the experience written about in this poem is widely known, it provides an interesting gateway to exploring the connection between poetry and writing as a means of survival. After analyzing this poem, students will be able to walk away with a deeper understanding of the emotional issues connected with the financial concerns they experience.
My Life Has Turned to Blue
The surface message of this poem deals with heartache, a theme which most adolescent students have strong feelings about. I figure this topic will be a theme that generates a lot of discussion, and will allow for a good entry into the analyzing of this poem. Angelou has been married an undisclosed number of times and has been involved in many relationships. I believe this poem doesn’t refer to one failed relationship, but rather the universal emotions that accompany failed relationships.
One interesting aspect of ‘My Life Has Turned to Blue’ that I will have my students explore is the use of color. The first stanza refers four times to color, while the second uses three, and the last has only two references to color. This reduction of color is a subtle way of showing the gradual paling of the narrator’s life. Colors are used to show vividness and liveliness. The removal of color gives the opposite feeling to the poem.
In juxtaposition to the blanching of color, the references to regenerative objects give it the feeling life and hope. For instance, green grass gives the impression of continuance and new growth. Winter is past and spring has arrived. That shows the passing of time, which heals the heartache. The reference to spring also shows that life continues and that cycle is never ending.
The color descriptions Angelou uses are not particularly original. Red robins, golden days and rosy dawns are fairly trite expressions. I will have students explain if they feel the expressions work of if they feel more original descriptions would have been better. If I get blank stared and the customary nod of approval without thought, I will encourage them to remember the days of Mad Libs. The descriptions one would get by filling in blanks in unknown sentences were very original, albeit typically nonsense. Students will have to try to understand why she used these expressions and then decide whether she was successful at that. I believe she used common expressions the reader would be familiar with because the feeling of heartache is a common experience and by using common wordings she taps into that commonality. I will hope to get students to explain their decision and to be able to use that knowledge in a poem using color descriptions they will write.
The first two stanzas have similar rhyming patterns. The second, fourth and sixth lines rhyme. By changing this slightly in the last stanza, Angelou shows the change in attitude in the last stanza. This is where the subtle sense of optimism comes through. Breaking out of the pattern, even if it is only slightly, allows the reader to break away from the melancholy sense of the heartache.
Poems about Character and Attitude
The correlation between Maya Angelou’s life and my school’s guiding words and principles makes Angelou’s poetry a logical tool for reinforcing and discussing them. The next two poems will look at her character. Even though she has done things in her life she is not proud of, these acts together comprise who she is, and she continues to live with her head held high. Her character traits are worthy of discussion due to the events she had faced. If her life had been simpler, the opportunities for her character growth might not have occurred.
Still I Rise
As the title indicates, this poem is a tribute to Angelou’s ability to rise above anything that happens or has happened to her. The poem creates a voice for all people, not just her individual story.
‘Still I Rise’ begins with a mention of writing down history. There has been a movement to analyze the text books presented to students to see if they hold the true history, or just one rose colored version. It is interesting that ‘Still I Rise’ begins by making the reader immediately think of the skewed versions of history they have been taught over the years. There is a sense of lies and silent discrimination that surrounds the history of African Americans. She also mentions dust in the first stanza. This goes along with the theme, bringing to mind many blacks who were killed. However, she says that the dust will rise, indicating that although the history has been difficult, the spirit will prevail.
The second, fourth, fifth, and seventh stanzas begin with different questions. This question is spoken to those that are perceived as taking offense at the rise of her spirit. The tactic of asking the questions pulls the reader into the poem. Instead of being able to skim over the content, the reader is forced to examine his or her own beliefs. The first, third, and sixth stanzas, those that do not question the reader, end with the phrase “I’ll rise.” The mixture of questions and assertion that “I’ll rise” lets the reader know that the answers to the questions are mute. They are to be filled in by the reader.
This poem has a consistent rhyming pattern until it reaches the last two stanzas. With these two stanzas the format changes. Instead of talking to the reader, Angelou begins to assert the rising the title speaks of. She makes reference to ‘roots’ and the slavery era. Instead of these experiences being a weight around her neck, she draws on the strength of her ancestors to increase her own. She says that she is able, in fact obliged, to persevere to fulfill the dreams of her ancestors for the opportunity to be a success in a free world.
While teaching this poem to students, I will make them examine their own character traits. They will have the opportunity to examine their personal strengths and how they have helped them develop. Many of my students feel modern day effects of racism and power struggles, including ‘driving while black’, frequent questioning by the police, and close scrutiny in stores. This poem will tap into their prior experiences and provide an interesting forum for discussion.
This poem is obviously written to reaffirm women’s strength. This poem may seem to be a strange option. The reason I am including it has to do with an event that occurred this year. In my school every day is begun with a whole school meeting. The purpose is to have a forum for announcements, but more importantly to start the day with a positive reminder of the school’s guiding words and principles. Put-ups are given to highlight individuals who have demonstrated the words and principles. The meeting ends with the positive message for the day. One day a girl stood up in front of the school to give the positive message. She had recently transferred in and was finding the adjustment to be hard. She rarely spoke up in a leadership role and was in frequent trouble. Her positive message was the reading of ‘Phenominal Woman’. I spoke to her after to ask why she had chosen it. She said she was at a turning point and needed to find her inner strength to put herself on the right path. This poem spoke to her. Judging the response of the female population of the school, it also spoke to them. So while it will be challenging to engage the boys through this poem, I think the poem’s power should be discussed nevertheless.
The biggest challenge will be to present this poem in a fashion that will not alienate high school males. In order for it to work the students will have to think of women who have impacted their lives. If they are able to view the poem as a tribute to influential women they have known, they will be more likely to appreciate it.
The layout of this poem is four stanzas, 13 lines in the first, 16 lines in the second and third, then 15 in the fourth stanza. All of the stanzas end with the same four lines, repeating the title.
The first stanza deals with her physical characteristics. While she is not conventionally beautiful, the way that she holds herself sets her apart from most women. Her confidence is more influential then her body type. The next stanza explains her attitude. She walks around like she owns the place, and people respond. The third stanza asks why men are so attracted to her. The last stanza tells the reader that they must understand then why she is a phenomenal.
This poem is great for adolescent girls to read and identify with. Angelou is a strong woman that uses her strengths, instead of bemoaning her weaknesses. The language of the poem is simple and easily understood. The message is very strong and resounds from every word. Even if this poem is not a focal point of a lesson, it provides a message that adolescents may need to hear, that despite what others see or expect of us to do, we can hold our heads up and prove them wrong.