Caged Bird

As I mentioned last week, April is National Poetry Month, a yearly celebration of poetry “inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996 . . .  when schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers, and poets throughout the United States band together to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture.”*

So I intend to dedicate a few posts in the coming weeks to this wonderful literary art that has been one of my lifelong passions.  I’ll start with Maya Angelou simply because today is her 86th birthday.

maya_angelouI had heard of Maya Angelou for some years, mostly in connection to her 1969 autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but my real introduction to this remarkable woman was in the late 70s when she hosted the instructional telecourse “Humanities Through the Arts,” a series of half-hour programs that I still see on PBS from time to time.  What immediately struck me about her was that voice – her words so richly enunciated and the deep timbre.  As someone who has been schooled in what I call “vocal artistry,” I enjoy hearing a truly great speaking voice.

Listening to Maya Angelou speak, it’s hard to imagine that she was once mute.  Sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend, she somehow found the courage to report the abuse.  The boyfriend ended up going to jail – for one day.  Shortly after his release, he was murdered.  Ms. Angelou wrote in her autobiography, “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name.  And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone . . .” She was around seven years old at the time and she did not speak again for five years. Eventually she recovered her ability to voice, and during the same period developed a love of the arts.

There’s no way I can cover all the facets of Maya Angelou’s varied life.  You can read many of the details at Wikipedia or on her own website.  She has been a civil rights activist, film producer, television producer, playwright, film director, author, actor, and professor.

In the 1950’s she was a calypso dancer, performing at clubs in San Francisco such as the famous Purple Onion.  I mention this because recently I watched a 1957 movie called Calypso Heat Wave, a cheapie made to cash in on the short-lived calypso craze.  It features a very young Joel Grey (Cabaret) and in an uncredited role, Alan Arkin.  Maya Angelou performs two numbers that she wrote herself, and let me tell you, she’s pretty hot, not to mention about the only thing even remotely authentic in the movie.

As far as Maya Angelou the poet is concerned, the Poetry Foundation notes, “her poetry has often been lauded more for its content . . . than for its poetic virtue.”  And yet, her poetry has earned her a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize (1972) and she is only the second poet in U.S. history to compose and read a poem for a presidential inauguration (Clinton, 1993).

“Caged Bird” was first published in Ms. Angelou’s 1983 volume of poetry, Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing?  The poem is about her personal experience with discrimination growing up in the south during the 1930s and 1940s, and the struggle of the 1960s civil rights movement.  Race, however, is not the only thing that binds people to suffering, so the “caged bird” is a metaphor for the universal desire of all beings for personal liberty.

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.

Maya Angelou, “Caged Bird” from Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing? Copyright © 1983 by Maya Angelou.

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