The Habit of Cultivating Mediocre Judgment

Recently, I was taken to task for saying that Maya Angelou was a mediocre poet. People called me ignorant. I’ve read poetry in 10 languages, poetry of many genres and forms, spanning 3,000 years. I’ve translated three epics (from Latin and Italian) into English. I’ve taught poetry to young people for all my professional life. So I rolled my eyes. But there was more. 

Because Angelou was a black woman, people played the part of Anthony Fremont of frightful memory, pointing and staring and saying, “You’re a bad man! You’re a very bad man!” It reminded me of when Roger Kimball said, at the school where I used to teach, that Toni Morrison was overrated. One of my colleagues, without any sense of irony, took to the student paper to call Kimball a fascist.

And who would venture a less than glowing opinion, after that?

When Ethel Waters starred as the wise and kindly black maid in “The Member of the Wedding,” both on Broadway and on film (1952), she insisted on inserting into the script a gospel hymn, “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” She and her stage and screen costars Julie Harris and the small boy Brandon de Wilde sing it together, in what I find the most powerful singing of a hymn in Hollywood history (though “Go Down, Moses” in “Sullivan’s Travels” comes close). Of course, it is Waters’ voice, a deep and expressive alto, that commands our attention, along with the rapt gaze upon her countenance. With great feeling and no sentimentality, as she embraces the two (white) youngsters, she embodies the words she sings:

I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.

Her performance, both acting and singing, and her improvement of the script, in my opinion, make the film superior to Carson McCullers’ bitter and agnostic novel. Ethel Waters was great. What on earth—other than a racist negligence back then and oblivion now—explains the fact that she does not have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, I can’t imagine.

I give that film 10 stars out of 10, and I’d have nominated Waters for the Academy Award for best actress of 1952 (the competition was ferocious, including Vivian Leigh in “A Streetcar Named Desire, Shelley Winters in “A Place in the Sun, and Katharine Hepburn, whom I usually dislike, in “The African Queen”). But if someone says that the film was mediocre, and that Waters’ performance was sentimental, I will disagree vehemently, but I will not assume that he is ignorant or tasteless or, worse, a hateful wretch who ought to be taken to a public arena and whipped. Does he have secret and wicked motives for believing what he does? It would be presumptuous and uncharitable for me to say so. It is also not to the point.

Angelou’s best-known poem, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” is in a loose sort of verse. Now, I do not like free verse. I believe it has done harm to the art. But sometimes a free verse poem, or, better, a poem that gestures toward an identifiable form and meter it does not fully manifest, reconciles me to the practice. Such is Robert Haydon’s “Those Winter Sundays.” Haydon, like Waters, was black, and, like Waters, he grew up in bitter poverty, the backdrop to the scene he sets so powerfully and with so few words:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

This is not merely a good poem. It is a great poem. The repeated question, “What did I know, what did I know,” is a cry of gratitude and remorse, come too late. Every word counts. The little word “too” speaks volumes. Evidently the father, whom no one ever thanks, but who does what he does in the duty of unappreciated love, gets up early also on the other six mornings of the week; and Sunday, in this regard, is no rest for him. They are going to church, and that also may be one “of love’s austere and lonely offices”—a beautiful and poignant line of iambic pentameter.

I knew the poem before I knew Haydon was black. Race may add to our appreciation of the author’s plight, and it may help explain, biographically, “the chronic angers of that house.” But the poem does not depend upon it. I can imagine the scene anywhere in Appalachia, or in the old Rust Belt. Politics is absent. The persons are merely suggested, yet the poet gives us enough for us to say, “I know someone like that,” also in belated appreciation and regret. We imagine the faces we cannot see.

Now, Angelou’s poem does no such. Fine; poems can do a variety of things. They can tell stories. They can draw precise characters. They can sing real songs. They can scale the heights of human learning. They can draw near the altar of God. They can intensify our gaze upon the natural world and things we overlook. Angelou does none of that. All right—poems can use language to surprise us into insight, and that, I think, is what she was attempting, but I don’t think she succeeds. It’s a commonplace to associate birds with freedom, and as for the bird that cannot fly, Blake said it far more succinctly and potently:

A robin redbreast in a cage
Sets all heaven in a rage.

Angelou’s is a mediocre poem. Angelou cannot really have been thinking about birds when she wrote it. Yes, I understand the “pathetic fallacy,” attributing human feelings to animals or to inanimate objects, but you had better be chaste about it, and you had better make it worth our while by teasing us into something profound about the human condition, as Robert Frost does in “The Oven-Bird.”

You should be wary of falling into foolishness. Birds don’t “leap,” unless it’s one chicken going after another. A “trill” cannot be heard on a “distant hill,” and trills are soft and pleasant, not fearful. Birds that sing, like swallows and thrushes, do not “scream.” Birds that ride the trade winds do so not for freedom, but for warmth and food, or else they will die. Nobody who keeps a bird in a cage binds its feet. We can “stalk down” a hall, but what can it mean, physically, to stalk down a birdcage? Fat worms do not wait on a lawn. They are in it, and birds that feed on worms must hunt them and pluck them up.

The epithets are poorly chosen. The rhyme in “dawn bright lawn” calls too much attention to itself for the trite image to bear, and the same goes for the trite adjective in “nightmare scream.” As for a shadow shouting—or shouting on a scream—what can that signify, other than a general notion of fear and anger? Trees have been sighing for a long time; the poem adds nothing to the commonplace. Trade winds? They don’t blow overland in North America, presumably the place Angelou is thinking of.

I’m not saying it’s a terrible poem. I don’t say that Thomas Kinkade’s paintings are terrible, though I find them trite and overdone. Far be it from me to forbid people to derive comfort from tacky but innocent art. But far be it also from us to hold persons and their works above criticism because we like their politics. John Wayne was a great actor, regardless of his politics, as was Sidney Poitier. They were great because they could convey a thousand powerfully human words in a single look or a single motion of the hand.

Let’s keep that in mind, and judge art accordingly.

About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness, a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine, and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is the author of well over 1,000 articles and of 28 books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) ; Life under Compulsion (ISI 2015). His verse translation of The Divine Comedy (Random House) is considered the standard edition of Dante. Professor Esolen's most recent books are Defending Manhood: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men (Regnery, 2022); In the Beginning Was the Word (Ignatius, 2021); Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020); Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World (Regnery, 2018); and his beautiful book-length sacred poem, The Hundredfold (Ignatius, 2018). The recipient of the CIRCE Institute's 2021 Russell Kirk prize "for a lifetime devoted to the cultivation of virtue," Anthony Esolen is professor of humanities and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College. Click here to subscribe to his substack Word and Song.

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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