Some people might be appalled by Maya Angelou's new deal with Hallmark cards. After all, to many people, the company has become a symbol of cloying sentiment and cutesy tchotchkes, not to mention tear-jerking commercials filmed through the gauzy haze of nostalgia.
According to USA Today, Maya Angelou, the dignified poet of the African-American experience and everyday life, has agreed to pen two-sentence bon mots for a series called the Maya Angelou Life Mosaic Collection. The collection, a typical Hallmark boutique of cards, bookmarks, picture frames, pillows, and even serving bowls, all embossed with the poet's pretty sayings, will soon be showing up in stores.
Normally, I too would be horrified by this apparent sellout of yet another literary giant, much the way Faye Weldon did in allowing Bulgari to pay her to mention its jewelry in her latest novel. In fact, at first, as an English teacher and self-appointed defender of literary standards, I was upset and disappointed with Ms. Angelou. Then I decided to look more carefully. I opened "Poems," one of her most recent poetry collections.
What I found there was not exactly Hallmark sentimentality, but mediocrity of another sort. It's not that the poems were actually bad, but that they were simple, light, and remarkably forgettable. Accessible, yes. But not really asking much of the reader, either.
Good poetry should be unsettling, vivid, maybe even a little difficult. Angelou's poem "Greyday" begins:
The day hangs heavy
loose and grey
when you're away.
After another short middle stanza, it ends:
No one knows
my lonely heart
when we're apart.
Maybe I'm missing something, but isn't that just the kind of thing that would look good in sweeping italic lettering on a pastel greeting card? Why am I thinking Rod McKuen and his sappy "Listen to the Warm"-type of poetry? Here's a quiz. Try to tell which sentiment is Hallmark, which is McKuen, and which is Angelou:
Then you rose into my life
Like a promised sunrise.
Brightening my days with the light in your eyes.
I've never been so strong,
Now I'm where I belong.
I have fallen in love with the world
And I am aware that I have chosen
The most dangerous lover of them all.
Within our reach lies every path we ever dream of taking.
Within our power lies every step we ever dream of making.
You might have been able to see through that last entry (yes, that's Hallmark), but could you tell that the first was by Angelou and the second by McKuen? I didn't think you could see much difference. My point is that Angelou poetry could potentially improve Hallmark's level of sentiment (for instance, its website says, "Each and every one of us is a member of the Human Family...."), but it's unlikely that a Hallmark association is going to do anything much to weaken Angelou. Her poetry hasn't been that good lately anyway.
Debra Bruno is a freelance writer.