With the recent passing of one of my most favorite poets, Maya Angelou, I decided to make a post discussing the impact that poetry and spoken word has had on my life, especially in the past year. I never liked English too much in middle school; I actually was determined I would never go to study it in college! I certainly did not like poetry much back then either. The first poem of Angelou’s that I read, “Still I Rise,” made me figure out that I didn’t hate poetry and I actually kind of liked it! Though I would not come to realize the effect that Angelou’s writing would have on me for many years, I have her to thank for having a part in creating who I am today.
As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, Shakespeare and the thought of performing in a play have interested me and language is a passion of mine. I enjoy all forms of literature, but among my favorites is spoken word poetry. I decided years ago that I wanted to major in English and read all the best books and learn about the lives of all the greatest authors. As I’ve spent more time listening than reading, I realized that words don’t have to be printed on a page for me to love and appreciate them. I love words and the thought that with just 26 letters in the English language we can communicate so much is phenomenal. I found that one of the greatest applications of those 26 letters is through spoken word poetry, a form of poetry that is meant to be performed in front of an audience. Rhythm, body language, and lots of emotion characterize spoken word and allow it to have such an impact on its listeners.
Although I cannot remember how or why I stumbled across my love for spoken word, I do know that it was a wonderful accident.
The first spoken word poetry I can remember listening to was Taylor Mali’s “What Teachers Make” in which Mali speaks of the profound impact that teachers have on the lives of their students. Mali is a former middle and high school teacher and draws his material for “What Teachers Make” from his teaching experiences. Having a mother who has worked in education for longer than I’ve been alive helped me relate even more to the poem. I’ve seen firsthand that teachers do more than just teach the assigned curriculum, and Mali’s account of what goes on in the classroom every day of instruction holds up to what I remember about my most beloved teachers. In his poem, Mali describes being asked how much he makes for a living. One of my favorite parts of the poem gives the start of his brilliant answer:
You want to know what I make?
I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could.
I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor
and an A-‐ feel like a slap in the face.
How dare you waste my time
with anything less than your very best.
Words on a page or a screen cannot do Taylor Mali or any other spoken word artist any justice, so here is the full poem.
One of my favorite spoken word poets is Sarah Kay, the founder and co-director of Project V.O.I.C.E., a group dedicated to using spoken word as an educational and inspirational tool. Probably her most known and my personal favorite poem of hers, “If I Should Have a Daughter” talks about all the things she would tell her daughter should she ever have one. As with Taylor Mali’s poem, Kay opens this particular poem with the same amount of power and sincerity:
If I should have a daughter…“Instead of “Mom”, she’s gonna call me “Point B.” Because that way, she knows that no matter what happens, at least she can always find her way to me. And I’m going to paint the solar system on the back of her hands so that she has to learn the entire universe before she can say,”Oh, I know that like the back of my hand.”
Here is the poem in its entirety as well as another poem of hers, “Brother,” that is another favorite of mine.
My favorite thing about spoken word is how it seems to talk so easily about the hard things: relationships gone wrong, mental illness, living in poverty, and many other topics. Listening to a particularly effective poem can leave me with shivers down my spine each time I listen to it.
Maya Angelou may be gone, but the spirit of poetry still lives. As I continue through my coursework at LMU, I am excited to learn more about poetry and just language in general. I never had the chance to meet Ms. Angelou, but if I could tell her just one thing it would be “Thank you.”
If you have any comments or questions feel free to email me or leave a comment on my blog!