Rhythm and beauty

Anyone who has ever heard author Maya Angelou read a poem knows she cannot be contained.

Her style, her grace, her being.

So it's no wonder that Sterling Publishing decided to include her in its Poetry for Young People series.

She is the first live poet and African-American woman included in the series, which features Carl Sandburg, William Shakespeare and Robert Frost.

Dr. Edwin Graves Wilson, a retired provost and English professor at Wake Forest University, edited "Poetry for Young People: Maya Angelou" (Sterling Publishing, $14.95).

The two have worked together for several years at the Winston-Salem university.

Wilson says Angelou's work is uplifting. "She writes about people who don't have a lot of possessions and who've had a lot of hardship in their lives. She shows how they can find joy and hope and happiness anyway."

For almost three years, Wilson combed through Angelou's poetry, selecting the poems best suited to young readers, with a targeted age group of 5 to 15. The poems are accompanied by illustrations by Jerome Lagarrigue. Wilson's 25 choices include "Still I Rise" and "A Brave and Startling Truth," a poem read to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations.

Wilson says Angelou knows him well and trusts his judgment. The two discussed the poems over a meal at Angelou's home.

"I hoped there would be food there," Wilson says with a small chuckle. He recalls several visits that included a baked chicken dish with a delicious sauce and vegetables cooked in a "Southern manner" and iced tea.

It might have been on one of those occasions they agreed to include "Life Doesn't Frighten Me," part of which reads:

I've got a magic charm

That I keep up my sleeve,

I can walk the ocean floor

And never have to breathe.

Wilson wrote the head note that sets up each selection.

Wilson often includes a glossary.

"I would go back to her and ask, 'Now do you think the head note is correct? Have I defined these words? Are there other words that should be explained?' "

In some ways, Wilson felt his assignment was probably easier than that of other editors in the series, who could consult the work but not the poets.

"I had the advantage of actually talking to her month by month," he says.

During those sessions, Angelou would sometimes start singing a hymn or a poem.

Wilson believes young people will get just as much from Angelou's work.

"Poetry is very important to young people. When they hear or read poetry, they not only learn words, they explore feelings. They hear rhythm learn something about the beauty of language and music. People remember all their lives the songs and poems they heard when they were young. If you are fortunate, that will continue all your life."