Two Portraits of the Poet as a Young Woman

Books by Poets

Mary Karr and Maya Angelou are talented authors of both poems and memoirs. With the remembered perceptions of a child and the skills of a mature artist these women recount the early years of their lives. These are honest stories about childhoods, not books written for children. The authors are plain spoken about the political and economic conditions they lived through, their sexuality and adolescence, so while they never lose the beauty and command of the language, the content of these memoirs is frank. This is to say that they are occasionally painful as well as joyful and celebratory. They are all well worth reading not only for their honesty, but also for their command of the language.

Mary Karr 
Liars' Club     The Liar's Club: a Memoir / Mary Karr

Karr reminisces about two years from her childhood, 1961and 1962, and the year her father died, 1980. Growing up in an East Texas oil town outside Port Arthur was not an idyllic setting. And many of her memories are frightening, and not as a result of the setting. As a child she was sexually assaulted twice, once by an older boy and once by an adult caregiver. These incidents are remembered with appropriate bitterness. Her parents drinking led to spectacular fights and dangerous antics. Her mother once threatened her and her older sister with a knife. Nevertheless, this is not just a how-tough-I-had-it-in-my-dysfunctional-family memoir. It’s also a story about her sister’s care and her own self-reliance and her love for her parents. Her favorite times were in the presence of her father and his friends, especially when they told stories. Wherever they gathered they called the Liars' Club. She also remembers with amused pride her own ability to stand up for herself. Physically and verbally, she was seldom cowed, whether in fist fight or theological debate.

"Sundays, when Carol Sharp came home from Bible school—her black hair pinched and shining in twin plastic barrettes, her petticoat sticking her pink skirt out sideways—and announced, while I was digging for worms in the flower box, how God had made me from dirt, I said I wasn’t dirt, and I wasn’t God’s Barbie doll either. And why would God set Death loose among us like some wind-up robot destroyer if he loved us so much. (page 106)"

The Liar’s Club was followed by Cherry, reminiscences of her years as a teen. Her third volume of memoirs, Lit, was published on November 9, 2009.

Sinners Welcome     Sinners Welcome: Poems / Mary Karr

If the neon cross on the cover and the title hadn’t forewarned me the latest book of poems by the author of The Liar’s Club and Cherry, the large amount of traditional Christian religious imagery and subject matter would have come as bit of a surprise.  Her memoirs of growing up in East Texas contain few references to religion and only a passing allusion to infrequent church visits with neighbors and a fight with girl who accused her (accurately) of saying that the pope dressed like a girl. Other than that there’s her flat statement on page 44 of The Liar’s Club, “We didn’t go to church.”

So reading Sinners Welcome reminded me of the bits on Monty Python when John Cleese intones, “And now for something completely different.”  If you are like me, you might want to start at the back of the book with the essay “Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer,” which tells of her 1996 conversion, “after a lifetime of undiluted agnosticism.” The poems themselves are clear, as befits a poet that proclaimed herself, “Against Decoration,” but certainly not without vivid images and language. And although religious, they are certainly not pious, as witnessed by titles like, “Hypertrophied Football Star as Serial Killer,” “Hurt Hospital’s Best Suicide Jokes,” and ”At the Sound of the Gunshot, Leave a Message.”

Maya Angelou


I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings     I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings / Maya Angelou

Civil Rights activist, poet and performer Maya Angelou recounts her childhood in what has become a modern classic of autobiography.

“When I was three and Bailey four, we had arrived in the musty little town, wearing tags on our wrists which instructed—“To Whom It May Concern”—that we were Marguerite and Bailey Johnson, Jr., from Long Beach, California, en route to Stamps, Arkansas, c/o Mrs. Annie Henderson.”

The owner of the Wm. Johnson General Merchandise Store in Stamps, Annie Henderson, her grandmother, became Momma for Marguerite and her brother. It was her brother Bailey who in his toddler tongue claimed her as “Maya” (my) sister. The store was the gathering place for the African American workers on their way to and from their day’s work in the cotton fields. It was there that she learned her mathematics at the cash register and there that she and her brother learned to read and love reading, and there that they discovered that alien race with their strange and unfriendly ways that lived in the other side of town, “whitefolks.”

But her childhood in the rural South with its church revivals, community fish fries, and first friends was interrupted suddenly when their father showed up unexpectedly and took them to live with their mother in St. Louis. With its strange foods, doorbells, flush toilets and noisy automobiles, St. Louis was like a foreign county. But it was a country with their glamorous and beautiful mother and her family. Momma, their Johnson grandmother was a pious woman of character who feared no one but God. By contrast Grandmother Baxter was a political force in the city with influence over the police, and feared no man.

Political power however was no protection against domestic danger. Eight-year-old Marguerite was molested by her mother’s boyfriend. The trauma sent her into silence and depression and back to Arkansas. There the regard of the educated Mrs. Flowers who encouraged her reading and plied her with tea and cooking gave her back her voice.

Her next move out of Arkansas with her brother was to San Francisco where her mother now lived. There, during the Second World War, she attended high school, and through dogged perseverance became the first black conductor on the streetcars. 

The publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969 was followed by an additional five volumes of autobiography: Gather Together in My Name in 1974, Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas in 1976, The Heart of a Woman in 1981, All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes in 1986, andA Song Flung Up To Heaven in 2002. The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou were gathered together by the Modern Library in 2004. 

Celebrations     Celebrations: Rituals of Peace and Prayer / Maya Angelou

These are poems for public pronouncement: an inauguration, an anniversary, a birthday, a retirement, a march, a Christmas tree lighting, Mother’s day, memorial services, a Bar Mitzvah, and a prayer. All the poems are written to be read aloud at public gatherings, and all succeed at eulogizing, celebrating, and petitioning for grace. Angelou’s command of the poetic form is combined with the skill of an orator. Just reading the script for them it’s easy to hear the mighty cadence of marching vowel sounds ricocheting off Capitol steps, marble monuments and the hard wooden walls of worship halls.