Weekend Poem: Caged Bird by Maya Angelou (RIP)

Earlier this week, one of the brightest lights in literature passed away at the age of 86. Maya Angelou was a living legend beyond her home country of the United States. The love and respect that readers the world over have for her is only likely to grow more in posterity. Beyond being a poet and writer, she was also an educator, producer, director, actress, musician and civil rights activist. And, yes, at one point, a sex worker as well — something she was not ashamed of.

There has been much written, tweeted, shared and said about Angelou — both in social and broadcast media. And, there have been many pithy sayings attributed to her rather erroneously as well. So, there isn’t much more that I can add here that would be new and singular. Instead, for someone so prolific and skilled with language, let’s allow her own words — through the many books, essays, poems, interviews and performances — stand for themselves. Sometimes, that is all we can do because, with a mind so brilliant that it exists in an entirely different strata, any attempt to provide some sort of analysis or summary of its workings and output can do nothing but fall far short.

It is also hard to pick a single Angelou poem to feature here as homage. So, I have resorted to picking a personal favorite. Like many, my first introduction to Angelou’s work was through her ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings‘ — a memoir of her early years and one of a six-volume autobiography. Just earlier this year, when I decided that I would start rereading my favorite books, this is the one I picked up. So, this related poem says so much more if you’ve read and loved that book as well.

Again, though, I will refrain from the usual poem analysis as it is, quite honestly, just beyond me at this particular time. So, by way of a brief introduction, here are just a few thoughts. Angelou was writing of a racist America where African-Americans were (still are, one might argue) held back and what that does to them. Over the decades, this anthemic poem has become the perfect reminder of how, no matter how constrained we might feel in our lives — through self-imposed boundaries or those created by others — that unique song that we all possess inside of us will always break through. It is a freedom song, as Angelou describes in the poem, and it is filled with so much more than we can imagine or comprehend. One last point: the title of both that first autobiography volume and this poem were inspired by a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar called ‘Sympathy‘, particularly, this third stanza:

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and 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.

And, with that thought of letting Angelou speak for herself, please enjoy the links below to some wonderful interviews and discussions. All of them are filled with her canny wisdom, searing honesty and literary lyricism. All of them are worth watching or listening to more than once, as I have done over the years.

My most favorite audio of hers is the ‘Letter to My Daughter‘, which I first listened to on a long road trip in 2008 from Cleveland, OH to Santa Cruz, CA — one of those serendipitous messages that the universe sends to you at just that particular moment when you need it most. I listened to it again last month and, again, parts of it moved me deeply. No doubt, similarly, there are many out there whose lives Dr Maya Angelou has influenced and enriched with the gift of her words. The power of her language will continue to to pulse stronger for a very long time indeed.

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.

~ Dr Maya Angelou, from ‘The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou‘ (originally published in ‘Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing?‘)

Interview/Discussion Links

The New Yorker’s ‘A Life in Pictures’

The New York Times’ Farewell Video

— National Visionary Leadership Project, An Oral History (video clips)

BBC World Book Club Discussion with Maya Angelou (from their archives)

NPR Fresh Air Commemorative Special (includes links to other interviews)

Charlie Rose Interview

Maya Angelou Masterclass on Oprah’s OWN Network

PBS Interviews (various video clips, though they were working on a feature-length documentary with her for their ‘American Masters’ series and are planning to complete it — shocking that they hadn’t gotten around to her sooner)

BBC Radio 4 Desert Island Discs Interview (where Angelou discusses her top music picks and various other things)

BBC Radio 4 Bookclub Discussion

— ‘Letter to My Daughter‘ (audiobook in her own voice)

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One thought on “Weekend Poem: Caged Bird by Maya Angelou (RIP)

  1. A beautiful poem. This is a perfect allegory for two dear friends of mine who are trapped within inescapable relationships. From the distant hill you would think they are free, but when you look close they are sadly clipped, tied and trapped. I’m sure there are many caged birds. Again, a beautiful poem. Thank you.

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