Maya Angelou, Walt Whitman: Songs of Myself

September 19, 2012

As of today, “Still I Rise” has 743,494 views on YouTube.  There are 1,113 comments, some vituperative, including this one: “What the fuck kind of poetry is this? John Milton would rise from the dead to kill this bitch if he heard this shit. Dante would have to add a 10th circle of hell just for this simple-minded woman.”

Well, I have mixed feelings myself about the poem.  But maybe it’s “simple-minded” in the way that Whitman is: not ironic, not restrained, a poetry of declarative sentences propelled by the force of syntax.    Here’s Angelou: “You may trod me in the very dirt/ but still, like dust, I’ll rise.”   And here’s Whitman, famously: “I too am not a bit tamed,  I too am untranslatable,/ I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”

They are both singing songs of myself, it seems  – “songs” in quite a literal sense, relying on a particular combination of word and music.  Whitman loved Italian opera arias; Angelou had an album out in 1957 called “Miss Calypto.”  And maybe that’s how her poetry should be heard – as we would hear song lyrics, a linguistic form making affective rather than cognitive demands, and being more listened to for that reason.

There isn’t much scholarship yet on Angelou and Whitman.  But I’m proud to say that the two of them are mentioned in the same breath – in the song lyrics by Leo Logic – on the Rap Genius website, for all to hear.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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