Maya Angelou: The Oracle Never Dies

May 30, 2014  • Eric L. Motley

Vice President and Executive Director of National Programs Dr. Eric L. Motley visits Maya Angelou in her Greensboro, NC home in 2007.

“Words live longer than the poets who wrote them, Longer than the rhapsode who speaks them…” 

My friends have been writing, reminding me of my Maya Angelou story, of my brief but meaningful time with her.

Bending on my right knee at her side, I made every effort to meet her eye to eye in her wheelchair. “Stand, Eric. Do not bow,” she implored. “Do not bow or kneel to any man. Remember that! I know all about you. I know your story. I know where you have come from. You have traveled too far from Montgomery to bow. We all have traveled too far from Montgomery to ever bow again.”

She knew about my upbringing in the tightknit community of Madison Park, founded by slaves freed as a result of the Civil War. I stood, adjusting myself, shaking the crease back into my trousers, all while we held each other’s hands and looked into each other’s eyes.

All my life I have wanted to be a poet. I wanted to write words, stringing them together in broken patterns, to rhyme and rearrange and make the ordered strange. From a very early age, I also knew why the caged bird sings — words, they just seemed liberating.

“I have been told you are a poet,” she said.

“No, Ma’am, not a poet, just a scribbler,” I responded

“CHILD, we all scribble on every scrap we can…giving every word new meaning by the way we write it down,” she retorted.

I took mental notes, line by line, not omitting one word that she said.

“I have made you some tea. Go and get some and come sit down and pull up that chair in front of me and let’s talk. Eric, you are so formal. Relax, honey.”

Relaxing myself as best I could (I was born un-relaxed), I took out my handkerchief and wiped the dampness from my brow. Why was I sweating? I was here, in Maya Angelou’s house. Poets were not new to me: I had met Rita Dove in college and ate collards and catfish with Gwendolyn Brooks down in Birmingham, but I had never been to either’s house. Neither of them had ever made me sweet tea nor reprimanded me for kneeling.

Just before 8:30 a.m., on April 25, 2007, I landed in Greensboro, NC, where I was to deliver a speech that afternoon to the World Affairs Council. My friend, Ambassador Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, offered to pick me up at the airport and to my surprise she and the legendary civil rights leader and businessman Bob Brown were waiting for me at my gate. While I stood, luggage in hand, Bob turned to Bonnie and said, “Should we tell him about our surprise? Eric, we are on our way to Winston-Salem. An old friend of mine wants to meet you!”

As the black car turned the corner and passed through the gates to the yellow brick house, I saw words coming out of the chimney, growing in the front garden, and climbing the barks of trees. In the brightness of the day and “on the pulse of morning” I had arrived at the place of my beginning.

“Eric the reader!” Ms. Angelou exclaimed. “So, whom do you read? Who are the poets that you keep going back to over and over again?”

Too embarrassed to simply say, “You,” I quickly called off some of my favorites who immediately came to mind: Wordsworth, Donne, Browning, Eliot, and, of course, Shakespeare.

“Lovely, just lovely, but are there not more?” she asked.

Bob and Bonnie looked on as if giving audience to the teacher and her pupil.

“Well, yes ma’am, there are so many more. I love Langston Hughes, and Gwendolyn Brooks, and do you know Gerard Manley Hopkins?” I responded.

Almost singing, she recited from memory:

“It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.” (— Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”)

“Oh I know Gerard Manley Hopkins,” she laughed. “His language is so rich and striking. I love the way he uses old words and made-up words, bringing words to life. In a lecture I gave several years ago, I compared him and his use of dialect to that of Robert Burns. Do you know Burns? You studied in Scotland. Have you read any of him? ”

“Oh yes, ma’am, ‘O my Luve’s like a red, red rose.’”

“Ha!” she grinned with that bright brilliant smile filled with love and laughter. “That poem was meant to be sung, and I can sing it too! But you know what I find so interesting about Hopkins is that he often creates compound adjectives, like: Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings…”

I was sure enough taking notes in my mind – pages turning, poems running, the fire burning deep within. This was better than Brit Lit. 205.

“But tell me, Eric, do you know Paul Laurence Dunbar?” she asked, leaning in close.

She had me there. Silence filled the room as I flipped through my mental rolodex…Dickens, Donne, Dove, Dryden, but no Dunbar.

She broke the still silence of the moment waving her hands in the air, lifting herself almost from the chair, singing:

“We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.” (— Paul Laurence Dunbar, “We Wear the Mask”)

“You must know Paul Laurence Dunbar. He is where WE begin. Promise me you will learn Paul Laurence Dunbar,” she implored.

I kept my promise.

We lingered a bit longer on Dunbar, then she asked me why I liked T.S. Eliot so much. I told her that I was impressed with his understanding of time and place and his use of irony. She asked if I meant by time the idea of history. She reminded me of the influence that French poets had wielded on Eliot. “Interesting,” I acknowledged, confessing my lack of deep knowledge of French poetry. She smiled. “You know quite a bit already, Eric Motley.”

She knew Milton, Shakespeare, Keats, Byron, Burns, Donne, and Hopkins as well as she knew Hughes, Brooks, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Why was I surprised? I felt a deep and wonderfully blessed connection to Ms. Angelou. We had read the same poets and understood both the beauty and strangeness of language and its liberating power. We were both in love with literature. More and more as seconds turned into minutes we talked about the great remembered and historic half-forgotten. Speaking of St. John Perse, she asked me, “Why do you think no one reads him now? I think he will come back to us again, maybe not tomorrow, but one day soon.”

Sitting there in her presence, I remembered. And did I remember.

We were at one. In our own lives we had both climbed the “crystal stair” of poverty and despair with Langston Hughes and had passed through with Eliot at Little Gidding “the unknown, unremembered gate / When the last of earth left to discover/ Is that which was the beginning.” Sitting before her, I felt her at my side. She all of a sudden became my guide. Yet, in all of my education I had forgotten that Maya Angelou was not just another poet. She was much more. She was the Oracle. We return to her time and time again, over and over, because she reminds us of our capacity to sing even when the shadows fall. She sings because she is happy. She sings because she is free.

I will never forget that afternoon tutorial. It lasted just a little over two hours, but it seemed a full day. Nor will I fail to remember the majesty of her poise and the strength of her voice and the brightness of her eyes. She not only made time for me, she made me tea — and it was good.

The oracle never dies.

She had been given by Bonnie a collection of my poems. Handing me the volume, she said: “Now read me one of yours.” Somewhat nervously, I cleared my throat, and began to read:

Her tortoise-rhythm, slowly spun, golden words into unmoored vessels.
When she spoke of Pushkin, Mandelstam, Hopkins
Honeybees swarmed the sunlit air,
leaving cornucopias of sweetness
in their flight for freedom.
Words live longer than the poets who wrote them,
Longer than the rhapsode who speaks them;
Translucent fragments,
prismatic sonnets,
beautified by time.
Translating their lines,
From parchment to air,
They flow like a blest west wind,
And disappear, waiting to be sung again. (Eric L. Motley, “Greta”)

Eric L. Motley, Ph.D., is Vice President of the Aspen Institute and Executive Director of National Programs.