Maya Angelou at Smith Baker; Joe Donahue at Whistler (1989)

With increasing discussion about renovating the Smith Baker Center near Lowell City Hall, I went to the vault to get this essay written in the moment in 1989. Let’s hope we can revive the Smith Baker Center and offer the public inspiring events like Maya Angelou’s appearance there.—PM


A Day That Starched Our Backbones

October 19, 1989, is in the books as one of the remarkable days in the cultural history of Lowell. Two very different people offered their writings to a combined audience of 1,500. Renaissance woman Maya Angelou stunned a packed house at the nineteenth-century recycled red-brick church that is the Smith Baker Center on Merrimack Street at noon, and in the evening poet Joseph Donahue of the Lowell Donahues launched his first collection of poems at the Whistler House Museum of Art. Both writers earned sustained ovations—it was a day of roses and accolades. People thronged to poetry readings on an otherwise ordinary Thursday, sure evidence of Lowell’s cultural revival.

Maya Angelou’s appearance was sponsored by the Middlesex Community College Common Book Program, the Friends of the Pollard Memorial Library, and the Student Union Government Association of Middlesex. The Donahue reading was presented by the Whistler House Museum of Art with support from Lowell Heritage State Park. The assortment of sponsors and partners is a hallmark of Lowell’s cultural scene. There is now in place an infrastructure of organizations, an atmosphere of cooperation, a community of artists, and a receptive audience that combines to create excellent events.

A natural teacher, Maya Angelou sang, recited, preached, acted, and danced her way through a fast-paced ninety-minute program. “I have not come for nothing!” she declared, ordering the Middlesex 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 recited, along with her own memorable work.

Dr. Angelou said her grandmother told her, “Poetry puts starch in your backbone,” as she described her love of reading and her 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, which threatens to debase all of us. Exhorting the students to feed their minds, she said that everyone in the hall had been paid for by the ancestors of every color. She declared, the students’ assignment is to prepare themselves to pay for those who will come after.

She scolded, laughed, and clapped, offering bold, musical poems of her own about love, the nature of women, and a hilarious piece about a “smoking carnivore” who cannot abide the natural food crowd. Her advice to writers in the audience: “Tell the truth, but not necessarily all the facts.” It was a virtuoso performance by a forceful cultural figure. A professor at Wake Forest University, Dr. Angelou is the author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, among other works. This book, selected as the “common book” of the year at Middlesex, was read by students from a variety of disciplines. Television viewers will remember Maya Angelou in her role as the mother of Kunte Kinte in the made-for-television mini-series Roots.

Joseph Donahue traveled to Lowell from New York City to introduce his first book of poems, Before Creation, among his clan and old friends. The Whistler House’s Parker Gallery was filled with people who turned out to hear the words of a poet who is an important voice of his generation of writers. The intelligence and fine craftsmanship of the works resonated in his reading. 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,” explained 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 family’s history as an armature on which to fix his speculations about myth, fate, loss, and recovery. Explaining that he was trying to find a way to write about New York City, he read several poems on that subject, works reflecting the edgy and exotic terrain of the most modern city.

Opening Joseph Donahue’s new book is like slicing open a ripe pomegranate—brilliant, jeweled, richly colored, densely packed, sweet, and at times rancid language and images look as tasty one by one as in clusters. The whole is gorgeous to observe before the juicy nuggets are sucked and chewed dry.

The surprise of the evening was his reading of three deeply moving elegies not included in the book. The local audience was visibly affected by 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. If these poems hint at the strength of his next collection of poems, there is much to expect.

Maya Angelou and Joseph Donahue made a day to remember in Lowell. As poet Donald Hall keeps insisting, poetry is not dead, even though some critics and commentators are trying to murder it. In a recent essay, Hall states flatly: “More people read poetry now in the United States than ever did before.” And their spines are better for it.


Paul Marion (c) 1989, 2015