I’m writing about these two collections together (Maya Angelou’s Complete Collected Poems and Lucille Clifton’s Mercy), although they couldn’t be more different from each other.
This is really the first time I’ve read work from either author in any concentrated way, beyond simply skimming the odd piece found in anthologies and in random places.
The Clifton gets a big thumbs up from me. Excellent tradecraft, and her spare, concentrated and understated style showcases the substance of her poems beautifully. This collection is divided into four parts: last words and stories are the first two and september song and the message from The Ones the last two. Unfortunately, the last two did not work so well for me – one is a series of poems about September 11 and its immediate aftermath, and the other seems to be a series of other-worldly communications (received by a psychic?) commenting on the human condition. I felt the themes in these two sections were too large for the poems, leading the latter to attempt too much and end up with too much abstraction and a loss of connection with the reader (or at least with this reader). On the other hand, the first two sections, which dealt with families, individuals, specific individual scenarios and events, packed some serious poetic punch and everyone should read them! One beautiful example online: dying.
As for Angelou’s poems, they did not work at all well on the page for me. The tradecraft was less noteworthy and I found her work lacked subtlety – was indeed often fairly raw, heavy-handed and sometimes even clunky. It’s easy to see where her considerable reputation comes from, though, if you do an internet search for her reciting her own work (see The Mask and Still I Rise, for example). She has a great, super-sensitive relationship with her words, a terrific voice and amazing delivery, which make her poems-as-voice much more formidable than her poems-as-text (as we might put it at Voice Alpha.)
Beyond those technical differences between the two, however (and this is why I decided to write about them together), is the big difference between the emotional places from which I felt each was writing. Angelou, it seems to me, writes from a tight, angry, bitter and sometimes rather triumphalist place. Her world feels divided into the good and the bad and in it, she robustly defends the side of the good and faces down the bad. ‘Committed’ poetry, in other words. Which has of course been important and necessary in every age, and always will be.
But, right now, other things, not these, resonate for me in poetry. Like Clifton’s more subtle, wider, and more ‘humane’ approach, with its signature underpinning of universal compassion. I like that in Clifton. Must go and find some more of her work…