Beyond Words: National Poetry Month & Maya Angelou

In celebration of the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month and Maya Angelou's birthday, we examine the poet's impact in the world of music, film, politics and beyond.
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Maya Angelou Photo

Maya Angelou. (Photo: Getty Images)

“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again. Lift up your eyes upon this day…” - Maya Angelou, “On the Pulse of Morning”

While April 2016 marks the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month, the month also harbors the 88th birthday of one of the premier contemporary U.S. poets, the late Maya Angelou. A multidisciplinary icon, she was known for a body of work that not only encompassed poetry but also other narrative genres like memoir and screenwriting. Beyond the book world, Angelou saw her verse appear in a variety of media forms over the decades, including TV and film, music, stage productions and world-famous lecterns. For her birthday and poem lovers everywhere, we’re happy to present a small sampling of Angelou’s prodigious output.

* “Put It on Me” for ‘For Love of Ivy’

Having established himself as one of the top leading men of the 1960s, Sidney Poitier set his sights on putting forth a film which would feature two black characters falling in love, a dynamic that continues to be rarely seen in cinema today. Hence came the 1968 feature For Love of Ivy, which showcased the premise of Jack (Poitier), a man who runs a truck operating business, being pushed into romance with Ivy, a domestic worker (jazz singer Abbey Lincoln) for a white family who wants to leave her job to create a better life. 

With poetry and music being bedfellows, Angelou co-wrote two songs for the film with Quincy Jones, including the track “You Put It on Me.” (Angelou had previously displayed her songwriting on select tracks from her 1957 album Miss Calypso.) Performed for the movie by bluesman B.B. King, the tune featured lyrics like: “You stopped my party when you came around, baby, and I’m so glad … that you put it on me.” With references to the “juju” power of women, Angelou wrote from the perspective of a man. The character speaks of his former cavorting ways and then plainly states he’s happier to have found someone he loves. The testimonial mirrored Ivy’s premise and the reaction moviegoers would have to Lincoln, a luminous presence seen here in one of her few screen roles.

* Soliloquy for ‘The Richard Pryor Special?’

In an ahead-of-his-time showcase, comedian Richard Pryor starred in his own primetime pilot before launching his variety show. Airing in May 1977, The Richard Pryor Special? featured a number of sketches that aimed to push audience sensibilities. In one poignant vignette, Pryor plays Willie the Wino, an alcoholic who passes out on his couch upon coming home from a neighborhood watering hole. Angelou in turn played Willie’s tortured wife. In a soliloquy that she’s credited with writing, she goes into the history of their relationship, the profound attraction she felt for him when they first met and the resulting traumas caused by the racism of the day. Angelou’s piece for the show was more of a dramatic monologue than a work of poetry, yet it still focused on the power of language, paying close attention to the emotional devastation associated with a specific word.

* “On the Pulse of Morning” for President Bill Clinton’s Inauguration

Maya Angelou Photo

Maya Angelou reciting her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993. (Photo: Clinton Library (William J. Clinton Presidential Library) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

In January 1993, Angelou added yet another tremendous feat to her accomplishments, becoming the inaugural poet for the presidency of Bill Clinton. The event marked the first time a poet was asked to present work at a U.S. presidential inauguration since Robert Frost recited “The Gift Outright” at President John F. Kennedy’s ceremony. Angelou worked on her verse for weeks, and thus “On the Pulse of Morning” was eventually born. The poem relied upon elements of evolutionary history and the natural world to offer guidance on what unites global communities. With a prescient understanding of the cost of war as well, Angelou wrote: “Come clad in peace, and I will sing the songs the Creator gave to me when I and the tree and the rock were one...” The lauded poem later appeared in book and audio form, winning a Grammy for the latter.

* “Alone” for ‘Poetic Justice’

In the summer of 1993, director John Singleton released his sophomore feature-length film, Poetic Justice, starring Janet Jackson as the titular character. Justice is a young, journal-writing poet working as a hair stylist in urban Los Angeles who has faced alienating loss and struggles to make her way. Jackson’s co-star was another premier poet, West Coast rapper Tupac Shakur, who portrays a postal service carrier who ends up going on a road trip with Justice. The two soon start to let their guards down and connect. Angelou, who also appears in the film, provided the poetry recited by Jackson. Poetic Justice opened with “Alone,” featuring the lines, “Lying, thinking last night, how to find my soul a home, where water is not thirsty, and bread loaf is not stone. I came up with one thing, and I don’t believe I’m wrong, that nobody, but nobody can make it out here alone.” Angelou’s words immediately got to the moral of the story and set viewers up for what was to come.

* “In and Out of Time” for ‘Medea’s Family Reunion’

In one of her last big-screen appearances, Angelou appeared opposite Cicely Tyson in the 2006 Tyler Perry comedy Medea’s Family Reunion. As the character May, Angelou recites her work “In and Out of Time” during a wedding procession. The poem adds a wallop of romanticism to the film, unassumingly fusing elegance, harsh history and sensual delights. Standout lines from a literary hero born in spring: “You freed your braids, gave your hair to the breeze. It hummed like a hive of honey bees.”

* Oprah Winfrey and “Phenomenal Woman”

Famous Lookalikes: Maya Angelou - Oprah Winfrey (Images of Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey    provided by Getty Images)

Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey. (Photo: Getty Images)

Media mogul Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou developed a very close relationship over the course of their careers, with Angelou serving as an adoptive mother in many ways to Winfrey. The two first met at Morgan State University when Winfrey, as a journalist, asked to briefly interview the writer. Over time, as their friendship deepened, Angelou appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show multiple times. A widely revered Angelou poem is “Phenomenal Woman,” which has also appeared in Poetic Justice and been readily embraced by Winfrey, who’s recited the work as well. Angelou herself did a remix of her famed poem for the foreword of the 2011 book, The Oprah Winfrey Show: Reflections of an American Legacy. In an ode to feminine power loved by people across the globe, Angelou explains the reason for her majestic presence: “It’s the fire in my eyes, and the flash of my teeth, the swing in my waist, and the joy in my feet. I’m a woman, phenomenally.”