Maya Angelou might just be the grandmother of the American literary scene. She's about the closest thing that literature has to a crossover star: from nonfiction prose writer and poet to political counselor, arts advocate, and Oprah ally, Angelou cuts a pretty big path through contemporary society.
Angelou may be known now as a cultural icon, but she backs it up with some decent street cred: when her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings came out in 1969, it rocked the literary world with its full-on confrontation of racism, sexual abuse, poverty, and the growing identity of a young black woman.
In "Alone," Angelou addresses one of the problems of the contemporary world: isolation. With all of our computers and Facebook pages and Twitter accounts and cell phones, you'd think that we'd be more connected than ever. As it turns out, though, technology doesn't compensate for the fact that most people feel disconnected from their communities, or even the people they love the most.
If Angelou's good at anything, it's having her finger on the pulse of contemporary problems – and figuring out ways to address those problems that link tradition and innovation. "Alone" hearkens back to black spirituals, using a call-and-response structure, which repeats itself throughout the poem, and referencing common Christian symbols. On a whole, the poem uses old communal traditions to address a very current problem.
You're not going to want to hear this, but this poem is about you. Didn't realize that you were a lonely, miserable soul? Well, maybe you're just not thinking about things the right way. Take some time. We'll wait. You'll figure it out soon.
…back with us? Good. Because Angelou's speaker is pretty convinced that you're as alone as the next person.
Luckily for us, though, there just might be some solace in the thought that everyone is as miserable as we are, wallowing in our can't-seem-to-stop-watching-America's Next Top Model lives. Hey, at the very least, our speaker is right there with us!
Seriously, though, chances are that you've at least had some afternoon in your life when you just can't seem to connect with anyone. It's like that kid's story, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. As Alexander says, "I went to bed with gum in my mouth, and I woke up with gum in my hair." Bummer.
We've all had days like that. It's what "Alone" is about. And when we feel that crummy, it's nice to know that others might be suffering right along with us. It's not a solution, but at least it's not just your own problem. That's got to count for something, right?
The Poetry Foundation's on Maya Angelou
Here's a good starting place for her bio.
Maya Angelou's Official Site
According to this site, Maya Angelou is a "Global Renaissance Woman." Hey, who are we to disagree? You'll find everything you need to know about her works and current projects here.
Poets.org on Angelou
Another bio, with great links to her poems.
Angelou Speaks at a Church in San Francisco
Angelou's social message has always been central to her literary projects. Learn more about both here.
Angelou Reciting "And Still I Rise"
OK, so it's not "Alone" – but here's a clip of Angelou reading one of her most famous poems.
Just About Everyone Honoring Angelou
Fine, so it's really Denzel Washington and Oprah – but what more could you want?
Angelou Reads at Clinton's Inauguration
We told you that she had her pulse on the country's issues! Check it out here.
Maya and the Muppets
When someone's as famous as Maya Angelou, she's bound to have tons of pictures floating on the web. Here's one of our favorites.
African American Lives
Angelou's a very civically engaged writer. Here she appears on a PBS series about famous African Americans.
Angelou on Oprah
C'mon, you know it had to happen! Find the interview here.
Angelou on Sesame Street
W who doesn't love Sesame Street?
Angelou Narrates Elmo Saves Christmas
We're not even kidding. Check this out.