But for Angelou, poetry wasn't just a way to cope with minor setbacks -- it became a way to overcome major tragedies. One of those tragedies occurred when she was just a child in St. Louis.
"When I was a young, my mother's boyfriend raped me," Angelou told the dead-quiet audience. "The police came to my mother's place after that man was put into jail and released, and the police said they found the man dead. He had been kicked to death."
"I heard that and I thought, my voice had killed him," she continued. "So I stopped speaking from age 7 to 13. I thought my voice had killed a man and it killed a man because I spoke his name to the family."
Angelou and her brother were sent to their grandmother's house in a small Arkansas town where Angelou said she slowly learned to cope with what had happened to her.
"My grandmother told me, 'Sister, Mama likes for you to read that poetry,'" said Angelou. "'See, Sister, poetry will put starch in your backbone.'"
Angelou went on to author 12 best-selling books, among them the 1970 memoir. In 1993, she presented her poem, "On the Pulse of the Morning," at President Clinton's inauguration, becoming the second poet in American history to recite her work at a presidential inauguration.
"I read poetry to educate, inform -- to enliven," she said. "I look in poetry sometimes for words that help me to laugh, especially when I need it. When I've turned on the television or picked up the newspaper and heard 'doom and gloom,' I think, wait a minute, it's not all doom and gloom. There's something there to make me smile or make me laugh -- and if there isn't, I'll write it."
Reach Amy Julia Harris at amy.har...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.