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Maya Angelou was the author of some of the most important poetry and prose of the 20th century. Let’s explore the author’s writing style in these two forms of writing.

Author Background

Born in 1928 in Missouri, Maya Angelou was one of the most prolific authors of the 20th century. Angelou was an author of prose, poetry, and screenplays. Her work led her to be respected with several honorary degrees and awards. Due to the power of her timely words, she inspired many other contemporary black female authors, including Paule Marshall and Gwendolyn Brooks. Let’s explore this important author’s style in both her prose and poetry.

Author’s Style

Before getting into the differences between Angelou’s prose and poetry, let’s first explore her writing style in general.

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Angelou’s style has many similarities in her poetry and her prose. In both, she used a direct, conversational voice, inviting readers to share in her stories and her secrets. She also employed strong and compelling metaphors and similes. The best example of Angelou’s use of metaphor – a comparison of two dissimilar objects – is in the title of her first novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Angelou used the title to compare a caged bird with herself.

Maya Angelou speaking at the inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1993
author

Angelou in Prose

Maya Angelou used a unique style in her prose writing. Before she began writing any of her stories, a publisher from Random House named Robert Loomis challenged Angelou to write a story of her life with literary merit. Spurred to prove she could accomplish the feat, Angelou focused on creating what would become I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Angelou’s first novel and her subsequent books combined the two requests of Loomis. They were autobiographical, because they told of her experiences from her perspective, and literary fiction, because they tapped into larger themes. Although Angelou wrote of her actual experiences growing up and living as a black girl and a black woman in the American South, she also connected her experiences to those of all black women dealing with racism, sexism, and isolation.

Autobiographies

After Angelou wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she would go on to write five other autobiographies.

She examined and explored race, sex, and identity in her novels with clear, unflinching directness. In her first novel, she wrote, ”If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.” The reader can feel the danger and the harshness in Angelou’s words.Angelou continually allows the reader to peer into private sectors of her life.

In her book Singin’ and Swingin’, she described her struggle to raise her son, Guy Johnson. She wrote, ”Determined to raise him, I had worked as a shake dancer in nightclubs, fry cook in hamburger joints, dinner cook in a Creole restaurant and once had a job in a mechanic’s shop, taking paint off cars with my hands.” Later, she details her time as a prostitute. This frank telling of desperate times provides the reader with an intimate look into Angelou’s experiences.

Angelou in Poetry

Although Angelou’s prose writing received much more acclaim and attention, she also wrote several collections of poetry.

Her collection Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die was published in 1971 and nominated for the highly regarded Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.Her style with poetry shows Angelou’s command of both Standardized English and African American English. Standard, or Standardized, English is the common accepted form of written and spoken English, both formal and informal. African American English is a dialect of English spoken in the African American community.

One method Angelou used is eye dialect, or different spellings conveying a specific, sometimes unique pronunciation. In the poem ”Ain’t that Bad,” she used the technique of adding an apostrophe at the end of words to change an ”ing” sound to an ”in” sound. For example:Puttin’ down that do-ragTightenin’ up my ‘froWrappin’ up in BlacknessDon’t I shine and glow?Angelou used African American English as a meditation on the role of having a separate language for the African American community. Later, when she taught at Wake Forest University, she would reinforce Standardized English with her students to give them a larger wealth of vocabulary, as well as expose them to African American English to give them a broader understanding of language. Angelou herself would use words borrowed from the five languages she spoke in her writing.

Angelou also employed call and response, a style that creates either a verbal or silent interaction between the speaker and listener, which makes room for calls or yells from the listener. Call and response style is common in gospel songs and spirituals. This style is seen in her poem ”Still I Rise”:Does my sassiness upset you?Why are you beset with gloom?I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fearI riseInto a daybreak that’s wondrously clearI riseBringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,I am the dream and the hope of the slave.I riseI riseI rise.In this excerpt we see that questions demand a response from the reader. The words ”I rise” are also repeated, similar to the repetition heard in a chorus of a gospel song.

Lesson Summary

Maya Angelou was an autobiographical writer, poet, and screenplay author. She was one of the most well-read black authors of the 20th century, who inspired many to follow in her style.

Her direct, honest writing draws in readers. Her prose writing in her six popular autobiographical novels, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, combines the honest telling of one’s life through autobiography with the connection to larger themes present in literary fiction. Angelou’s poetry used Standard English with African American English to place the reader inside her compelling mindset. Her work also integrated call and response, a style that creates either a verbal or silent interaction between the speaker and listener, which makes room for calls or yells from the listener. Additionally, Angelou used eye dialect, which is when authors use different word spellings to convey a specific, sometimes unique, pronunciation.

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