18 pages 36 minutes read

Maya Angelou

The Lesson

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1978

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Literary Context: Wisdom Literature

For many readers, contemporary poetry can seem intimidating. It can demand input and involvement as readers deal with layers of suggestion and irony, recreate objects into symbols, and, in turn, derive themes, necessarily plural and often contradictory. It encourages, really demands, discussion and probing analysis. Along the way, in that interactive process, the reader is expected to come to terms with the poem’s intricate formal architecture and the poet’s subtle manipulations of prosody itself.

That tradition in poetry, however, is barely three centuries old. In affirming that life is worth living, “The Lesson” offers, well, a lesson, singular. It teaches, consoles, and lifts the spirit. As such, it is an example of wisdom literature, a poetry genre nearly 3,000 years old in which poets use the vehicle of poetry to help guide readers to live better, fuller, richer lives.

Organized religions and established cultures have for centuries accumulated a body of such wisdom literature—parables, folk tales, fables, proverbs, fairy tales. In this genre, readers trust the writer to gift them not with themes but with inspirational lessons using accessible language, uncomplicated symbols, and approachable forms.

The most familiar practitioners, sacred and secular—Aesop, Buddha, Christ, Muhammad, Horace, La Fontaine, and more recently Flannery O’Connor and Theodor Geisel (Dr.