Poetry first came into my life when I was 3 years-old. Amidst a motley crew of dolls, stuffed bears and dragons, a favorite green chair, and a new beloved baby brother, someone opened and read the first page of Green Eggs and Ham for me. I was hooked. As I’ve grown older, I can appreciate this story more: the first-person narrative, the attentiveness that went into using only fifty words carefully, but beautifully throughout the story, the lesson learned by Sam, even the socio-political implications of the book’s banning in some countries. Above all, the whimsical simplicity of this story truly changed my appreciation for storytelling. It was the first of many kernels which began helping to develop my own voice and imagination. Several years have passed since that page was first opened, and the scope of my love for this form of art has grown, from Poe to Baraka, from the Illiad to The Weary Blues. Of course, a few works always stand out to me, especially Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise.
Countless times, Still I Rise has uplifted me through personal challenges. When I first read the poem as a teenager, I was going through a period of fear and grief. Within weeks of starting my first year in high school, my own teenage wasteland, I lost someone I loved to a harsh, debilitating illness. My life was gripped by devastation and sadness that I had never known before, and I did not know how to react. Stunned, I watched as members of my family whose strength kept our lives afloat innumerable times broke down. Throughout this, I was reminded of something a favorite teacher from my past said during a history lesson, “When someone dies, even the strongest and bravest, people cry”. I’d truly believed him, but I’d never seen or felt the depth of such distress until that day.
On the outside, I kept going through the motions of life, trying to keep a visage of calm, of a typical hard-working student/teen. However, inside my feelings and sense of self seemed to dull. Things which would have otherwise excited or bothered me beforehand became insignificant. I pushed people away, even feeling as though I couldn’t relate to some of my greatest friends in the same ways. All of this slowly began to change after an afternoon English class. Sitting in a dim classroom on a rainy day, our teacher began reciting several works of poetry, selecting a few people every so often to continue. I remember Harlem by Langston Hughes (another favorite), and a work from Shel Silverstein being read. Most of the verses seemed muffled, not quite breaking through my forlorn reverie. Then someone began reading Still I Rise.
To be honest, the first two verses went over my head at that point, until I heard my classmate’s voice strengthen and exclaim with stark clarity,
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
I’ll rise. I’ll rise. Those two words echoed in my mind. Captivated by the passion of my classmate’s voice, the honesty of the prose, I began to contemplate this compelling concept. As the reading continued, I began to feel as though Ms. Angelou was in the room, personally imparting her wisdom and experience to us. I related most to the sense of confidence and spirit throughout the work. Although not all of her words reflected my own experience, I was entranced by the ideas of moving past petty words, scorn, fear and loss:
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Of course, each verse also seemed to imply another sense of turmoil—of fearing punishment, pain and danger when opening oneself to change, the unknown. In endeavoring to weave her personal identity, the depth of her pain and struggle began to transform and be overcome with self-fulfillment to a point where there could be healing.
As a grown woman, these words are ever present, ever resonating. Each time I come across this work, I revel in them, greeting them like an old friend, and with each reading, I discover something new within myself.
From And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou. Copyright © 1978 by Maya Angelou. Reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.
Maya Angelou, 1928 – 2014
Langston Hughes, “Harlem” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1994 by The Estate of Langston Hughes.