Poet Maya Angelou speaks Friday at the Clay Center.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Maya Angelou, a 6-foot-tall, unmarried and pregnant 16-year-old, was looking into the United Nations headquarters in San Francisco and bawling."I read that the U.N. was hiring people who would be simultaneous translators and that they were paying the unheard of amount of $150 a week," Angelou said. "I used to go down to that building and watch as Eleanor Roosevelt would enter, and I would weep copiously and say, if I wasn't black, 6 feet tall, unmarried and pregnant, I could learn all the different languages and go into that building and become a simultaneous translator."Fifty years later, Angelou, now a world-renowned poet, activist and author, was asked to write a poem for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, a "poem for the world," she said."I said, 'Yes, thank you.' And I wept with gratitude when I went to the U.N. and delivered that poem," Angelou recalled. "I knew that I was only able to do that because I had rainbows in my clouds."Angelou, a National Medal of Arts recipient and the author of the memoir "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," gave a riveting 40-minute address to a packed house in the Clay Center on Friday about life, hope, overcoming hardship and the transforming power of poetry. The award-winning poet helped celebrate the 100th anniversary of the YWCA in Charleston at the organization's Signature Centennial Event at the Clay Center."In Genesis, we're told that it rained unrelentingly and people thought it would never cease," Angelou began. "And in an attempt to put people at ease, God put a rainbow in the sky. Well, in the 19th century, some African-American poet, probably a woman, said God put a rainbow not just in the sky, but in the clouds . . . because if the rainbow is in the cloud itself, the viewer can see the possibility of release, of hope.""If you look in poetry, you'll find everything you need to stay alive and awake," said Angelou. "Poetry to me is a rainbow in the clouds."Angelou detailed how poetry played a prominent role throughout her life, from trivial experiences to profound life-altering events.She penned a humorous homage to meat -- "Carrots straw, spinach raw, today I need a steak"-- after unsuccessfully trying to order a potato and salad at an uppity health-food restaurant with an insufferable waitress.
But for Angelou, poetry wasn't just a way to cope with minor setbacks -- it became a way to overcome major tragedies. One of those tragedies occurred when she was just a child in St. Louis."When I was a young, my mother's boyfriend raped me," Angelou told the dead-quiet audience. "The police came to my mother's place after that man was put into jail and released, and the police said they found the man dead. He had been kicked to death.""I heard that and I thought, my voice had killed him," she continued. "So I stopped speaking from age 7 to 13. I thought my voice had killed a man and it killed a man because I spoke his name to the family."Angelou and her brother were sent to their grandmother's house in a small Arkansas town where Angelou said she slowly learned to cope with what had happened to her."My grandmother told me, 'Sister, Mama likes for you to read that poetry,'" said Angelou. "'See, Sister, poetry will put starch in your backbone.'"It did.
Angelou went on to author 12 best-selling books, among them the 1970 memoir. In 1993, she presented her poem, "On the Pulse of the Morning," at President Clinton's inauguration, becoming the second poet in American history to recite her work at a presidential inauguration."I read poetry to educate, inform -- to enliven," she said. "I look in poetry sometimes for words that help me to laugh, especially when I need it. When I've turned on the television or picked up the newspaper and heard 'doom and gloom,' I think, wait a minute, it's not all doom and gloom. There's something there to make me smile or make me laugh -- and if there isn't, I'll write it."Reach Amy Julia Harris at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4814.