Today’s NYTimes includes this article about the Harlem-based Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the NY Public Library acquiring a massive archive of papers from author and performer Maya Angelou. The story prompted me to recall Maya Angelou’s visit to Lowell in 1989 as a guest of Middlesex Community College. Following is an op-ed piece I wrote at the time for the SUN, but which never appeared because of a change of editors.—PM
A Day That Starched Our Backbones
Two writers read and recited their work to a combined audience of almost 1,500 people on an otherwise ordinary Thursday in Lowell. October 19 turned out to be a day of roses and accolades. Renaissance woman Maya Angelou stunned a packed house at a noontime program at the Smith Baker Center, a converted nineteenth-century church across from City Hall; in the evening poet Joseph Donahue launched his first collection of poems at the Whistler House Museum of Art. Maya Angelou sang, recited, preached, acted, and danced her way through a fast-paced 90-minute performance in the crescent-shaped hall ringed in stained-glass. “I have not come for nothing!” she declared, ordering the college students to take out pen and paper to write the names of authors she was about to reveal: Georgia Douglas Duncan, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Mari Evans were a few of the African-American writers whose poems she shared, along with her own work.
Remembering her grandmother’s wisdom, Angelou said, “Poetry puts starch in your backbone.” She described her love of reading and vast appetite for great works, from Shakespeare to Countee Cullen. “All knowledge is spendable currency—read, read, read!” Hers is a message of liberation from the small, mean life that threatens to debase us. “Everyone in this hall has been paid for by ancestors of every color,” she told the students. “Your assignment,” she added, “is to prepare yourselves to pay for those who will come after.”
Angelou scolded, laughed, and clapped, offering bold, musical poems of her own about love and the nature of women and a hilarious piece about a “smoking carnivore” who cannot abide the natural food crowd. She advised writers in the audience to “tell the truth, but not necessarily all the facts.” A professor at Wake Forest University, Angelou is the author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and other works of prose and poetry. Selected as the “common book” of the year at Middlesex Community College, her memoir was read by students across disciplines. Television viewers will remember her playing the mother of Kunte Kinte in the television mini-series Roots.
Joseph Donahue traveled to Lowell from New York City to introduce his first book of poems, Before Creation, to his extensive family and old friends. The Whistler House’s Parker Gallery was filled with a crowd eager to hear the words of a poet who is an important voice of his generation of writers. The author’s keen mind and the fine craftsmanship shone through the spoken words. A professor at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, Donahue offered a choice wedge of contemporary poetry: the style of his work, at its best, is a combination of “neo-Language Poetry and high lyricism,” according to a colleague. Standing in a room hung with Don Quixote etchings by Salvador Dali, he delivered his poems very much as is, not cluttering the presentation with extensive set-up or paraphrase.
Beginning with a long prose poem, “Purple Ritual,” he guided the audience on a tour of the American psyche, using the assassination of John F. Kennedy and his own family’s history as an armature on which to fix his meditations about myth, fate, loss, and recovery. Explaining that he had tried to find a way to write about New York City while living there, he then read several poems about the city, works reflecting the edgy and exotic terrain of our most modern metropolis.
Opening Joseph Donahue’s new book is like slicing open a ripe pomegranate—poems filled with brilliant, jeweled, densely packed, sweet, and sometimes acid language and images are as tasty one by one as in clusters. The shape of the whole work satisfies even before the juicy nuggets are chewed to the dry seed. The surprise of the evening was his reading of three deeply moving elegies not included in the book. The local audience took to heart his remembrances of Lowell journalist and family friend Jim Droney, the Droneys’ daughter Sarah, and a figure whom no author with Lowell ties can ignore—Jack Kerouac. These poems telegraph the strength of his next collection.
Donald Hall insists that poetry is not dead, even though, he says, some critics and commentators are trying to murder it. Hall claims, “More people read poetry now in the United States than ever did before.” And their spines are better for it.
—Paul Marion (c) 1989, 2010