Introductory Lecture Maya Angelou and the New Testaments of Courage and Hope Laurence Musgrove October 8, 2001 Thank you, Chris. I also want to thank Leslie Rowan in the Office of the President for this invitation to make a few remarks in preparation for our evening together with Maya Angelou. I also want to say that it's an honor to be here in this company of friends of Saint Xavier University and, as a member of the Department of English and Foreign Languages, to testify to the power of literature. There is much to learn about Maya Angelou's amazingly diverse career as a writer of autobiography, poetry, drama, screenplays, and lyric, as an actor, producer, director, as a civil rights activist, as a teacher. For many of us, our primary and most common connection to Maya Angelou's work is through her public appearances on television or we may even remember her reading a poem for President Clinton's first inauguration. For many others, especially those of us who study literature, we know her through her writing, her books and her poetry, what I would call her witness to the power of courage and hope in our lives. But perhaps I am moving too fast through her credentials without adequately defining some important terms. So tonight, in the next fifteen minutes or so, I'd like to ask and answer two questions in order to help lead us to an introductory understanding of Maya Angelou and her pursuits in life and literature. The first question is: "What does literature do?" The second is: "How does Maya Angelou use writing and literature to fulfill her purposes?" "What does literature do?" Asking what literature does can be quite different from asking what literature is. Like any subject of study, whether it be biology or algebra, we can look at this subject and describe what it looks like and its various parts. Literature is, at the most basic level, language. Words, sentences, punctuation, these are the only materials writers have to paint their story worlds. Language is the currency, the means to an end, the train we ride through the drama of the book or the poem. Beyond language, we have form. We know that authors shape language into a variety of forms, and we study those forms in order to understand how the machine of the novel runs, or how the poem turns and walks toward us with an out-stretched hand, or how the play like a chess game opens piece by piece, move by move, strategy by strategy, until the king is dead. We can also explain how a traditional novel is a long story with various characters, an extended plot structure, a narrative point of view, a turning point or climactic moment, and a resolution. We can explain how poetry has developed over the centuries from the verse fragments of Sappho, through epic verse, the sonnet, blank verse, and the contemporary lyric poetry of authors like Mary Oliver and Billy Collins, our current US Poet Laureate. But these divisions and classifications tell us very little about what literature does in the hands of readers, real readers looking for personal escape or enlightenment in the printed pages of bound books, large and small. Literature is not an end in itself. We don't read literature to know what literature is. We read literature for more personal pleasures. And this means that no one can read a novel for us, just as no one can give us the experience of viewing a Rothko painting or give us the pleasure of hearing a Beethoven piano sonata. Literature offers us a kind of intimacy that cannot be reproduced or paraphrased in Cliff notes, dust jacket covers, a teacher's lecture, or a New York Times book review. The summary, the explanation, the analysis is not the book. These intimate moments, these lived through personal engagements with the stories and poems of others result when we accept the gifts authors hold out to us. "Here," the author says, take this and read." "Look inside these pages," the poet says, "and look for yourself yourself." Afterward, when we share our favorite passages or books with friends, we want them to have the same experiences we've had. We become the gift-givers. We want our friends to meet a new friend. But still literature offers more than a series of friendships. Literature does good. Whether we realize it or not, all literature takes as its goal the victory of courage and hope. Literature keeps the faith burning, the faith ignited by the original scribes of our most ancient and holy texts. Novelists, poets, dramatists stage battlegrounds where characters representing good and evil, pride and humility, courage and fear, honesty and dishonesty, hope and despair duke it out page by page, rhyme by rhyme, scene by scene. Literature is the evolving parable, telling over and over the same story of the struggle of hope to comfort the weary and estranged members of our human family, over and over the same story of courage bearing down upon retreating fear. As an example of this literature of hope and courage, let me read to you one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite authors. His name is Wendell Berry. Wendell Berry writes and farms and lives in a small farming community in Kentucky. In this poem titled "Drouth," he reminds us just how dependent farming families are on forces they cannot control. By the way, there is a word in this poem that I should probably explain and that word is "raincrow." RAIN CROW. It is a term invented by the poet here to refer to the call a bird would make prior to a rainstorm, signalling its impending arrival. Raincrow then might be thought of as being opposite of the rainbow, that signal of hope that follows the storm. Drouth All day the crops burn in the cloudless air, Drouth lengthening against belief. At night The husbands and the wives lie side by side, Awake, the ache of panic in their bones, Their purposes betrayed by purposes Unknown, whose mystery is the dark in which They wait and grieve. All may be lost, and then What will they do? When money is required Of them, and they have none, where will they go? Many will go in blame against the world, Hating it for their pain, and they will go Alone across the dry, bright, lifeless days, And thus alone into the dark. Others In grief and loss will see more certainly What they have loved, and will belong to it And to each other as in happiness They never did - hearing, though the whole world Go dry, the hidden raincrow of their hope. Here the poet presents two different points of view, two different attitudes toward the same problem. He seems to be asking us, "Which of these farm families are you?" He wants us to ask ourselves, "If we are the first, why do we despair in the darkness? And if we are the second, "Why do we find in our hearts the light of new possibility?" What would move someone to choose the crown of hope over the thorns of despair? I like to believe that hope has a twin and his name is courage. Courage is another favorite topic of poets, especially Mary Oliver, another favorite poet of mine. Mary Oliver lives in Connecticut where she walks and writes. In her poem, "When Death Comes," she describes an attitude toward death that reveals her attitude toward life. When Death Comes When death comes like the hungry bear in autumn; when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse to buy me, and snaps the purse shut; when death comes like the measle-pox; when death comes like an iceberg between the shoulder blades, I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering; what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness? And therefore I look upon everything as a brotherhood and a sisterhood, and I look upon time as no more than an idea, and I consider eternity as another possibility, and I think of each life as a flower, as common as a field daisy, and as singular, and each name a comfortable music in the mouth, tending, as all music does, toward silence, and each body a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth. When it's over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. When it's over, I don't want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument. I don't want to end up simply having visited this world. This "bring it on" attitude, this desire to drink fully and live robustly is not the carefree, carpe diem, don't forget to smell the roses, live for the moment, bumpersticker engagement with the world. Mary Oliver advocates an abiding and joyful attentiveness toward life's precious mysteries; she models for us a courageous loving of our singular world. In these poems, we see contemporary poetry continuing the work of all great literature, these are new testaments describing acts of hope and courage in the face of drought and death, despair and fear. These poets, along with Maya Angelou, belong to a larger host of writers who have taken their turn at the plow, at the pen and pencil, to hoe the row, to plant the seeds of hope and courage in our common soil, our common soul. The second question is: "How does Maya Angelou use writing and literature to fulfill her purposes?" Maya Angelou is a member of a community of writers who demonstrate the power of language and literature in their lives. They have used language to liberate themselves from the chains of misunderstanding, to deliver themselves from those who wish to keep them down, keep them small, and keep them in the darkness. Through writing, they lift themselves above their former selves and light their own paths toward more hopeful and courageous examples of when it means to be human. In Maya Angelou's best known work, her autobiographies, she portrays the terrors of self-hatred, racial oppression, sexual abuse, and abandonment. She also portrays her victories, as well as her commitment to racial justice and self-understanding. Her first and most popular memoir, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, takes its title from a poem by another friend of courage and hope: Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the first African American poets to gain national prominence more than a centure ago. Listen to his poem "Sympathy." Sympathy I know what the caged bird feels, alas! When the sun is bright on the upland slopes; When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass, And the river flows like a stream of glass; When the first bird sings and the first bud opes, And the faint perfume from its chalice steals- I know what the caged bird feels! I know why the caged bird beats his wing Till its blood is red on the cruel bars; For he must fly back to his perch and cling When he fain would be on the bough a-swing; And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars And they pulse again with a keener sting- I know why he beats his wing! I know why the caged bird sings, ah me, When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,-- When he beats his bars and he would be free; It is not a carol of joy or glee, But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core, But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings- I know why the caged bird sings! Now listen to a poem by Maya Angelou titled "Still I Rise" Still I Rise You may write me down in history With your bitter, twisted lies, You may trod me in the very dirt But still, like dust, I'll rise. Does my sassiness upset you? why are you beset with gloom? 'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells pumping in my living room. Just like moons and like suns, With the certainty of tides, Just like hopes springing high, Still I'll rise. Did you want to see me broken? Bowed head and lowered eyes? Shoulders falling down like teardrops. Weakened by my soulful cries. Does my haughtiness offend you? Don't you take it awful hard 'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines Diggin' in my own backyard. You may shoot me with your words, You may cut me with your eyes, you may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I'll rise. Does my sexiness upset you? does it come as a surprise That I dance like I've got diamonds At the meeting of my thighs? Out of the huts of history's shame I rise Up from a past that's rooted in pain I rise I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide, Welling and swelling I bear in the tide. Leaving behind nights of terror and fear I rise Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear I rise Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise I rise I rise What makes rising possible? What makes the caged bird sing? Occasions like this one, in the company of friends, can make rising possible. We also know that in reading stories, seeing a play, or listening to poems we find the sympathetic music that fills our hearts. Tonight, as Maya Angelou talks to us about her life, we are likely to see a once caged bird sing, and we are likely to rise and rise and rise as she tells us new testaments of courage and hope.