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Maya Angelou

On Aging

Some questions to challenge you!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 18 January 2014
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The poet looks at the process of aging. She calls for understanding, not pity. The person beneath the aging body, she says, is still the same person who was always there, even though her body is slowing. Nevertheless, the sense should be one of gratitude and not sympathy.


Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in April 1928. Her life story is a remarkable one, growing up in poor circumstances and a victim of a shattered home.

She was raped by her mother's boyfriend when she was just eleven years old, an incident which caused her to become selectively mute for many years until she had her self-confidence and honour restored to her through the help of a friend.

Her shocking childhood, however, led to a struggle to maturity and she fell pregnant because of her efforts to prove she was a woman. Her marriages to both Tosh Angelou and Paul Du Feu ended in divorce.

She nevertheless overcame all these disadvantages and found a niche on the stage and later on the screen, acting in several award-winning productions. She has also made a name for herself in the area of film directing.

Today Maya Angelou is renowned as a poet and writer, an actress and director, and was an important figure in the American Civil Rights Movement.

She is the author of 12 best-selling books and innumerable poems. Indeed, she is one of the most prolific Black authors of the modern day, and the recipient of numerous top awards. She also speaks several languages fluently.

She has been described as one of the great voices of contemporary literature and as a remarkable Renaissance woman because of her ability to overcome all obstacles and utilize her talents to the full.

Despite her lack of any form of college education, she has lectured at several universities. In 1981 she assumed a lifetime position as the first Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. She has subsequently been awarded Honorary Doctorates from several leading American universities.

In January 1993 she was asked to read one of her poems at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, an honour only happening once before and that to the great American poet, Robert Frost.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

"When you see me sitting quietly,
Like a sack left on the shelf,
Don't think I need your chattering.
I'm listening to myself."
  • Comment on the simile, "Like a sack left on the shelf". (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why does the woman say that she doesn't need your chattering? (4)

[Need help?]

  • What is meant by, "listening to myself"? (4)

[Need help?]

"Hold! Stop! Don't pity me!
Hold! Stop your sympathy!
Understanding if you got it,
Otherwise I'll do without it!"
  • Explain what it is that the aging person is asking. (4)

[Need help?]

  • Comment on the use of repetition in the first two lines above. (4)

[Need help?]

  • What does the aging person mean when she says, "Understanding if you got it, | Otherwise I'll do without it!"? (4)

[Need help?]

"When my bones are stiff and aching,
and my feet won't climb the stair,
I will only ask one favor:
Don't bring me no rocking chair."
  • Why does the poet speak of "my bones" and "my feet" instead of referring directly to herself: e.g. "When I am stiff and I can no longer climb the stair"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Quote one word which indicates that this is an American poem. Explain your answer. (2)

[Need help?]

  • What is this "one favor" to which the poet refers? (4)

[Need help?]

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