I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: A Letter to Maya Angelou

By Ellie Lakatos

This letter is one of the 2019 “Letters About Literature” competition winners for the state of Nevada.

Dear Maya Angelou, 

I was never a ‘poem’ person. Analyzing or even reading poems seemed un-entertaining to me. On the other hand, I enjoyed and preferred to write prose. Poetry never stuck with me. To me, finding the deeper meanings in poems was a waste of time. That was true until one drama class in my first year of middle school, 6th grade. In beginning drama, I was nervous about what others would think of me. Was I cool in their eyes? Or was I lame? 

Each student in the class was supposed to perform a poem. The students had to choose from 5 different poems. Amongst these five was your poem, (I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings). As the teacher read each poem to the class one by one, I found myself uninterested. My mind started to imagine the delightful sound of the bell ringing, signaling the class is over. At one moment, the teacher started to read your poem, “The free bird leaps on the back of the wind…” (Stanza 1) Immediately, I found my ears listening to every word. I grabbed the edge of my seat, carefully taking to heart what the poem described, word by word. I had developed an interest in a poem that sparked like an energetic fire. As quick as lightning, I raced to the front of the classroom to obtain your poem. 

Later that month, when it was my turn to perform your poem, I had it memorized by heart. I could perfectly perform that poem in my sleep. In this class, we didn’t even have to memorize the poem, but I read the poem so often, it would be a crime not to retain your poem in my memory. That poem truly spoke out to me. I could imagine the bird and the emotion the poem describes in my head. After my performance, the room erupted into a gracious applause of claps. My confidence levels soared through the roof. I knew I belonged with these people. Your poem improved my confidence and gave me the feeling that I had succeeded. 

Still, no matter how much I enjoyed your poem, I wouldn’t know how much it affected me till I reached 7th grade, almost a year later. Near the beginning of the school year, I was resting in a class without work to do. I was always a fast worker who breezed through their work, therefore, I had a lot of extra time on my hands. When thinking of what to do to keep myself busy, your poem appeared in my mind. It was almost like the bird was perched atop of my desk singing its song. My hands reached for a paper and pencil before I even had a second to think about my actions. I started to write and rhyme. I was jotting down a poem. It turned out to be a simple poem about rain but this very poem and your poem changed me as a person. 

Since that day, I enjoy listening to and writing all different types of poems. My view of the world also changed thanks to your poem. I am more analytical and enjoy finding the deeper meaning to ideas and things in life. For example, I once spent a whole day comprehending the birds that chirped an ear-pleasing song outside my window that morning. Little items such as rocks can create hours of thoughts in my head. I can envision deeper ideas about abiotic and biotic things, especially animals and pets. 

Thanks to your poem, I appreciate small things in life and have gotten a confidence boost. I now view myself as someone who is talented and deserves to be confident. Even though I love writing prose, writing poetry has become something that calms me down. It is like my calming tea. Whenever I am stressed or anxious from school, I create rhymes with stanzas. I find pleasure in including symbolism and adventure in my poems and life. Thank you for the truth and emotion in your work. It has changed how I view myself and the things around me.

With Gratitude, 

Ellie Lakatos

Ellie Lakatos is a student at Lawrence and Heidi Canarelli Middle School in Las Vegas, Nevada. Her letter to Maya Angelou, author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, won first place for Level 2 for in the Nevada Letters About Literature competition. Ellie Lakatos is a bilingual poet, writer, actor, reader, and animal lover. She spends her days enjoying the small things in life, but also learning and taking all opportunities thrown her way.

Aliza Pantoja