The Poetry of Maya Angelou

Contributor: Melissa Kowalski. Lesson ID: 11518

Wouldn't it be an honor to read your poem at a presidential inauguration, or be on Oprah? What price would you pay for that privilege? Read how Angelou's life shaped her poetry, then write your own!


Literary Studies

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!


caged bird sings

Unlike many poets who only earn fame after their death, Maya Angelou was famous during her lifetime.

From winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom to composing and presenting a poem at a presidential inauguration, Angelou was widely respected as a poet and historian in the latter half of the twentieth century and after her death in 2014.

Maya Angelou receiving Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama

Image, via Wikimedia Commons, is a work of an employee of the Executive Office of the President of the United States, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

However, Angelou did not set out to be a poet and writer. In fact, her life began rather unextraordinarily as the child of working-class African-American parents in St. Louis, Missouri. To learn more about Angelou's life, read Maya Angelou Biography, from American Academy of Achievement. As you read about Angelou's unusual path to literary stardom, answer the following questions on a separate sheet of paper:

  • Why were Angelou and her brother Bailey sent to live in Arkansas as children?
  • What values did Angelou learn while living in the South?
  • How did Angelou get the nickname "Maya"?
  • What trauma caused Angelou to become mute for five years?
  • What was Angelou's first job in the entertainment industry?
  • Why did Angelou return to America after spending several years living in Africa?
  • What subject did Angelou's first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, cover?
  • At whose presidential inauguration did Angelou deliver a poetry reading?

When you have finished answering the questions, discuss your answers with your parent or teacher. Was there anything that surprised you about Angelou's life? If so, what was it?

Since Angelou lived in the latter half of the twentieth century and was famous for the last four decades of her life, many interviews and recordings with Angelou have been archived by the media. To hear Angelou speak about her own life and literary inspirations, watch The Revelation that Changed Dr. Maya Angelou's Life | Super Soul Sunday | Oprah Winfrey Network from OWN (below). As you watch the video, listen for the things that Angelou says have influenced her life:


God and the power of his love and redemption were not the only themes in Angelou's life that influenced her poetry. Other than the power of religion and God, Angelou also incorporated the following themes in her poetry:

  • Survival How can the body and the spirit overcome life's traumas and setbacks?
  • Unity How can people overcome their differences and recognize the humanity in each other?
  • An African American woman's identity and place in society Where did the African American woman, a figure who was marginalized for much of history, fit into her local and world communities? What value or worth did she bring to the greater society?
  • Memory How does the power to remember shape individuals and collective societies? How can memory change, be forgotten, or be "misremembered"?
  • Love What is the transformative power of love?

Now that you know more about Angelou's life and the themes she used in her poetry, move on to the Got It? section to analyze several of her poems.

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