‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou

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 back yard.

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.

This is probably Maya Angelou’s best-known poem, and for good reason. It is a wonderfully defiant, human, uplifting cry from the deep heart of America, which tells a story that I’m sure speaks to us all.

The poem roots itself in the history of the African-American people, with it’s talk of slavery, and that gorgeous image of the “black ocean, leaping and wide” — such a powerful metaphor for overcoming oppression. But the poem’s scope is not limited to one people; it speaks of the universal notion of the defiance of the downtrodden. Angelou’s voice is resounding and sensually rhythmic, and carries so beautifully her message of strength and positivity.

Still I rise contains so many images that I love. In the first stanza, Angelou writes that although she may be trod into the very dirt, she will still rise like dust (“like dust, I’ll rise”). This idea, coupled with the soulful rhythm, creates a palpable atmosphere of unstoppable defiance. The dust rising, for me, delivers the image of a ghost — perhaps even the ghosts of slaves — that no oppressor or murderer can escape.

The recurring questions in the piece are brilliantly provocative: “Does my sassiness upset you?” “Does my haughtiness offend you?” and “Does my sexiness offend you?” she asks. I love this. It seems to overcome sexism and the oppression of women in particular. This is something that Maya Angelou overcame in her own life, and she speaks with such inspiring strength here. Another phrase that gives a great symbol bash to all of that is “Does it come as a surprise/ That I dance/ Like I’ve got diamonds/ At the meeting of my thighs?” This gives me goosebumps every time I read it. By specifically talking about the “meeting of [her] thighs” Angelou gives the ultimate defiance of a woman; she owns and loves every part of herself, and rises up, dazzling and sexy.

Another couple of images I love, and that I want to talk about, are the “oil wells” and the “gold mines” mentioned in the second and fifth stanzas. The poet writes that she walks “like I’ve got oil wells/ Pumping in my living room” and that she laughs “like I’ve got gold mines/ Diggin’ in my own back yard”. Again, her defiance is brilliant. Though her oppressors might think they have ended her by subjecting her to poverty, still, she walks like she has all the wealth in the world. I love the tone, here. It’s as though she knows her oppressors are so materialistic and mercenary, that the only way they can describe her joy and sexiness is to say she looks like she has a lot of money. The images of the oil wells “pumping” and the gold mines “Diggin'” are so strongly evocative; I just love it.

Here is a video of Maya Angelou reading Still I Rise. She has the most incredible voice and presence.

And here is another video I found on Youtube that I just had to share. This is Maya Angelou’s talking about how “love liberates”. I think she’s such an amazing and inspiring human being!

‘Let It Be Forgotten’ by Sara Teasdale

Let it be forgotten, as a flower is forgotten,
Forgotten as a fire that once was singing gold,
Let it be forgotten forever and ever,
Time is a kind friend, he will make us old.

If anyone asks, say it was forgotten
Long and long ago,
As a flower, as a fire, as a hushed footfall
In a long-forgotten snow.

This is a soft, chanting lament for some undefined past glory such as love that has died, or youth that has passed.

Teasdale repeats her mantra, “Let it be forgotten” throughout the piece. To me, this repeated phrase could be an incantation or a prayer; she is willing herself to forget, but can’t. Is she afraid to speak of it? And why? It could also be a challenge or dare put to the reader, saying ‘I dare you to forget something so beautiful’. Another reading might suggest that she is so sure of the value of what she has lost, that she is careless of whether others remember it or not: “Let it be forgotten” — because it doesn’t matter; it was glorious while it lasted, and that is all that counts. Like all great poems, this one can be read in multiple ways.

The poet holds up two important images in this poem: the “flower” and the “fire”. “Let it be forgotten”, she writes, like a “flower” is forgotten, or a “fire that was once singing gold”. I love that image of the “singing gold”; for me, it really evokes the passionate love of youth. The flower and the fire are both things that are beautiful, but which cannot last; it is a certainty that they will one day either die or burn out. It is perhaps even the very fact that these things are ephemeral that makes them so beautiful.

Teasdale has a great talent for sad beauty, and I just adore the melancholic tone of this poem. She has understood what Keats said of melancholy in his Ode on Melancholy: “She dwells with Beauty — Beauty that must die”. But melancholy though the poem is, Teasdale nevertheless maintains the sense that her internal life is rich because of what she has possessed in this love or youth. There is a secret joy hidden in the poem. There is a wistfulness and a longing in the long-vowelled rhyme scheme that makes this piece truly musical.

In the final verse it becomes clear that the poet has not forgotten this love or youth or passion that she is evoking. “If anyone asks”, she writes, “say it was forgotten”. The language here implies deceit; she hasn’t forgotten at all; she just wants people to think she has. Perhaps she does not wish to talk about it because it is too powerful a memory — too wonderful a thing. Or perhaps it is simply impossible to put into words.

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‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.

Sticking with the Remembrance Day theme, here is (probably!) the best war poem ever written.

Dulce et Decorum Est is a Latin phrase taken form an ode by Horace, and it means “It is sweet and honourable to die for your country.” Of course, in Owen’s poem the title is used ironically, and goes against all that Charge of the Light-Brigade kind of rhetoric that was so prevalent before the First World War.

This poem absolutely floored me the first time I read it as a teenager. I had never really thought about war in this way — on a personal, human level. I almost don’t know what to say about it; the imagery is so graphic and shocking – and so strangely beautiful in its immense power – that it leaves me rather speechless.

As Owen said himself, “My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.”

I admire Owen so much, both for his courage as a man and soldier, and for his poetic genius. The more I’ve read about him over the years, the more I feel very connected to him. He spent time just before the war teaching English in France, near Bordeaux, and he was also determined from a young age to be a poet. He was very taken with Keats, and Romantic poetry, and it took much persuasion from his literary hero and mentor Siegfried Sassoon to get him to write about the war (the two met at Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland where Owen was being treated for shell-shock.)

Wilfred Owen wrote this poem while still at Craiglockhart. In the original manuscript, the poem was dedicated to “Jessie Pope, etc”. Jessie Pope wrote a lot of poetry full of propaganda to encourage men to enlist. Her poems are pretty boring, tame and infuriating creatures, with such nauseating lines as, “Who would much rather come back with a crutch/ Than lie low and be out of the fun?” I think Dulce Et Decorum Est very firmly slams a door on that kind of nonsense.

There is something incredibly touching to me about this young man — so earnest and determined to be a poet like Keats — being so utterly transformed by his experience of trench warfare, that through the trauma he finds his voice. And what a voice! He has really become the poet of the Great War, and I think it’s so tragic that he never knew the extent to which his poetry would be read and loved after his death in 1918.

This poem is as relevant today as it was in 1918. War has not changed, in its essence, and the gas attack described in this poem is certainly not a bygone phenomenon.

Owen wrote many very moving (and surprisingly detailed) letters to his mother from the trenches of northern France. I will end this post with an extract from one, written from a cold, dark cellar, just days before Wilfred Owen was killed:

Dearest Mother,

So thick is the smoke in this cellar that I can hardly see by a candle 12 inches away. And so thick are the inmates that I can hardly write for pokes, nudges, and jolts. On my left, the company commander snores on a bench. It is a great life. I am more oblivious than the less, dear mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside and the hollow crashing of the shells. I hope you are as warm as I am, soothed in your room as I am here. I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here. There is no danger down here – or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines.

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

Original Draft with Jessie Pope dedication

Original Draft with Jessie Pope dedication

‘The Dug-Out’ by Siegfried Sassoon

Why do you lie with your legs ungainly huddled,
And one arm bent across your sullen, cold,
Exhausted face? It hurts my heart to watch you,
Deep-shadowed from the candle’s guttering gold;
And you wonder why I shake you by the shoulder;
Drowsy, you mumble and sigh and turn your head…
You are too young to fall asleep for ever;
And when you sleep you remind me of the dead.

We are coming close to Remembrance Day and I have been thinking about some war poets. Sassoon is always among the first who comes to mind, and he is rightly one of best-loved poets of the First World War.

This particular poem stands out for me among Sassoon’s verse because it is not full of obvious rage and it doesn’t have the ironic tone of many of Sassoon’s brilliant pieces. The Dug-Out presents us with a simple image, and uses plain, clear language to describe the poet’s internal suffering after his has witnessed so much slaughter, so many young men dying before his eyes in grotesque, futile circumstances.

In the poem, the speaker watches a fellow soldier sleeping in the dug-out, in the trenches. His legs are “ungainly huddled” and his face is “exhausted” and “deep-shadowed”. As ever, Sassoon does not shy away from showing us the reality of his war experience, and the toll it took on the men. The image of the candle’s “guttering gold” is quite fascinating; it seems evocative of the unimaginably precarious existence these men lived in the trenches. The poet shakes his “drowsy” comrade by the shoulder, but he just mumbles and “turn[s] [his] head”. He does not want to wake.

The final two lines of the poem are just heart-breaking: “You are too young to fall asleep forever;/ And when you sleep you remind me of the dead”. Like all the soldiers to fight in the Great War (and, of course, every war before and since) they are too young to die. Sassoon is begging this soldier not to die, but also not to sleep; his experience of warfare has so affected him that now the image of a man sleeping reminds him of death and fills him with dread.

I am not sure whether the soldier addressed in this poem is actually dead or not, and I think Sassoon intends it to be ambiguous. The poem seems dreamlike to me, the way the speaker shakes the man to wake him, but the man, mumbling and sighing, “turn[s] [his] head”. The piece certainly has a haunted feel to it in my view. It feels like a nightmare where the speaker is trying to stop a friend from sleeping because he’s afraid he will die, but he is powerless to prevent it.

Listen to a recording of Sassoon reading the poem himself, here.

SiegFried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon

‘The Spirit is too Blunt an Instrument’ by Anne Stevenson

The spirit is too blunt an instrument
to have made this baby.
Nothing so unskilful as human passions
could have managed the intricate
exacting particulars: the tiny
blind bones with their manipulating tendons,
the knee and the knucklebones, the resilient
fine meshings of ganglia and vertebrae,
the chain of the difficult spine.

Observe the distinct eyelashes and sharp crescent
fingernails, the shell-like complexity
of the ear, with its firm involutions
concentric in miniature to minute
ossicles. Imagine the
infinitesimal capillaries, the flawless connections
of the lungs, the invisible neural filaments
through which the completed body
already answers to the brain.

Then name any passion or sentiment
possessed of the simplest accuracy.
No, no desire or affection could have done
with practice what habit
has done perfectly, indifferently,
through the body’s ignorant precision.
It is left to the vagaries of the mind to invent
love and despair and anxiety
and their pain.

We looked at this poem in a poetry workshop I went to recently, and I found this a fascinating piece. In it, the poet expresses the notion that the spirit is “too blunt” or vague a thing to create the intricate perfection that is a human baby.”Nothing so unskilful as human passions” could have “managed the intricate/exacting particulars”, writes Stevenson. This statement puzzled me, when I first read it. I think it is true (but also untrue!) and ironic, because human passions are exactly what create new life… Of course, something other than human passion is needed to create a baby (and the poem goes into great, clinical detail about “meshings of ganglia” and “neural filaments”) but you still need passion in order for two people to come together (whatever passion that might be — lust, love, or something hateful).

The poet talks about “the body’s ignorant precision”. This line really stood out for me, and I think it sums up what Stevenson is saying about the body in this poem. She is presenting the body to us as an unthinking, efficient machine. It is something quite miraculous, and I find it very interesting that she goes into such detail about its inner workings in the medical, scientific language that is so seldom found in poetry. I think Anne Stevenson does this because, although she is praising the great machine of the body, she is also subtly hinting at the coldness or pointlessness of a perfectly working body if there is no passion or love.

Any “passion” — any “desire or affection” — is depicted as vague and imprecise in the poem, and incapable or creating anything so useful as the human body. For me, this evokes the conflict between science and religion. Perhaps I’m taking it too far, but this poem reminded me of a person trying to disprove God’s existence by saying how precise the body’s chemical reactions are, and insisting that the “spirit is too blunt an instrument” to be the cause of life. It is not love that creates life, but rather the ignorantly precise and obliviously diligent chemical reactions in the body. It is left to “the vagaries of the mind to invent/ love and despair and anxiety/ and their pain”.

I haven’t really come to a conclusion about what Stevenson wants to say in this poem. I suspect her intention is to provoke thought, rather than to offer any definitive argument. It certainly made me think! I am fascinated by the conflict in the poem between the forces of “vague love” and “ignorant precision”. But I don’t  see why they should necessarily be mutually exclusive.

Anne Stevenson

Anne Stevenson