Old Folks Laugh by Maya Angelou


Introduction

The poem ‘Old Folks Laugh’ by Maya, Angelo is a tribute to the positive attitude that elderly people develop towards life. They no longer practise simpering and are free to laugh as they wish. They don’t bother the people around them; their laughter is an act of liberation. Their only flaws are their slow movements and inability to maintain a steady head position. They teach how to laugh freely and welcome death, which will free them from all impediments. Finally, their global experience has brought them to terms with everything that has happened in their lives.

Summary of Old Folks Laugh

First and foremost, this poem describes the way elderly people laugh. However, the poem’s meaning is much deeper than that. As the poet describes the physical process or appearance of the old people’s laughter, she also describes their personalities, thoughts, and feelings.

The poet expresses his thoughts on various aspects of growing older. The poem describes old people as having attained certain freedom, freedom from pretension (having to pretend) or vanity. The poem is about the wisdom, or ‘knowing,’ of old people. The poem mentions that old people have a lot of memories – there is a sense in the poem that memories have a special meaning to these people now that they are old. Finally, the poem brings up the subject of death, describing old people as having to face the prospect of death and the end of life. All of these characteristics distinguish old people from children or adults who are still in their early or middle stages of life.


Theme of Old Folks Laugh

The poet aims to express the importance of certain characteristics of old people, such as their wisdom, intelligence, and experiences. The poet’s aim is also to make a statement on death and to investigate how the elderly people in her poem feel about it. As a result, death and ageing are major themes in this poem.

On a deeper level, however, the poem is meant to comment on life and how people deal with it. A major theme in this poem is people’s ability to be joyful and human in the face of adversity and suffering.


Structure

The poem is written in free verse. There is no rhyme or fixed structure.There is considerable variation in the line length. A large part is written in short lines using run-on lines (enjambment). Punctuation is used as in normal prose, and the poem is written in a few, simple full sentences. There is considerable variation in line length. Large parts of the poem are written in short lines using enjambment.

The variation between short, medium and (a few) long lines can be said to mirror visually the rising and falling sounds of laughter, with high peaks and low troughs. Also the “if” is a contrast between long and short sentences. The tempo speeds up in some sentences or parts of sentences and slows down in other parts. This changing tempo and rhythm can be said to mimic the irregular sound of laughter. It also affects the tone of the poem, moderating a playful tone in certain parts and enlivening a serious tone elsewhere.

The poem opens with a sentence spanning the first six lines, introducing old people a having finished with ‘simpering’ and false smiles (‘holding their lips’). The lines that follow confirm this by describing the freedom and joy with which old people laugh letting it “spill/over any way they want”, presumably because they have no time for falseness or pretension and are wise enough to know how to really laugh.


Questions and Answers


Short Answer Questions

1. What does the poet mean when she uses the word “simpering?”
Answer: Simpering means a silly smile that contains no emotion

2. Why are the old folks able to forgive life?
Answer: Old folks are able to forgive life because their experience of the world makes the difficult thing bearable for them.

3. What is “the best and worst of remembering?”
Answer: The best and worst of remembering is looking back at one’s life.

4. Why does the poet uses run-on lines for the poem?
Answer: The poet uses run-on lines for the poem because the poem is all about the old folks laugh, their laughing seem to be spontaneous, uncontrollable and free that is it has the quality of run-on.

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5. Explain briefly the comparison made about the bellies.
Answer: When the old folks laugh their entire body shakes, bellies goes up and down or from side to side like tambourines jiggles. Tambourine is a musical instrument, which is played by shaking or hitting on it, so the poet compared the old folks’ bellies with tambourine.

Very Short Answer Questions

I. Answer the following questions:
1. What is the shake of the bellies of the old folks compared to?
Answer: The shake of the bellies of the old folks is compared to the sound of tambourines.

2. Name the most popular autobiography of Maya Angelou.
Answer: I know why the caged bird sings (1969) is the most popular autobiography of Maya Angelou.

3. Complete the line:
When old folks laugh, they consider the promise of dear painless death and generously forgive life for happening to them.
4. The laps of the old folks are filled with memories

5. What do you mean by “hollers?”
Answer: Hollers means loud shouts made without any inhibitions.

MCQs of Old Folks Laugh

Q. Choose the correct answer:
1. Which of the following words describes the frailty of old folks?
Answer: b. wobble

2. Which line from the poem indicates that old folks are not self-conscious?
Answer: b. When old folks laugh, they free the world.

3. What is the meaning of the word ‘promise’ in the poem?
Answer: d. Death is inevitable.

4. What is the purpose of the full stop used in the lines winding the lines between their brows. Old folk allow their bellies to jiggle…
Answer: d. To show that the old folks’ days of caring about what other people think are over.

5. Why does the poet describe death as ‘dear’?
Answer: a. Death is a relief from the problems that come with old age.

II. EXPLAIN WITH REFERENCE TO THE CONTEXT.
1.

Saliva glistens in
the corners of their mouths,
their heads wobble
on brittle necks, but
their laps
are filled with memories

a. Who is being addressed in this poem?
Answer: Old people are being addressed in this poem.

b. What is the attitude of old people when they laugh?
Answer: When old people laugh, they don’t care about what the world will think about them. They laugh as loudly and expressively as they want.

c. What does the poet mean by their laps are filled with memories?
Answer: By ‘their laps are filled with memories’, the poet means that the old people treasure their memories and hold them close the same way grandparent hold their beloved grandchildren in their laps.

2.

When old folks laugh, they consider the promise
of dear painless death, and generously
forgive life for happening
to them.

a. What makes the old people want to forgive life?
Answer: The promise of a painless death makes old people want to forgive life.

b. Why do they think about death?

Answer: They think about death because they have lived their lives with all the hardships that life had to offer and now that they are old and feeble and content, they think of death as an escape.

c. What quality of old people does the poet talk about in these lines?
Answer: In these lines the poet talks about the fearlessness of the old people to face death. It also talks about forgiving life for the state they are in.


III. ANSWER THE QUESTIONS.
1. When and why do the old folks pretend?
Answer: When old people face troubles or remember the bitter experiences of their past, they cover their worries and anxieties with a smile and pretend to be happy. They do this because they have known hard times and happy times and remember both.

2. What kind of an impression would they make on others when they laugh loudly?
Answer: When they laugh loudly they infect others with their positive attitude. They show the world how to laugh without worrying about how they look or without trying to please others.

3. What do we know about the old people?
Answer: Through the poem Old Folks Laugh by Maya Angelou, we know that old people have a positive attitude. They laugh aloud without worrying about how they look when they laugh. They do not care what people think of them though there was a time when they did. They smile to cover their worries and anxiety but when they remember happy times, they laugh with no restraint. They have known hard times and happy times and remember both. Their laughter is a sign of their triumph over sadness. They look forward to dying painlessly and willingly forgive life for the state they are in.

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GOING BEYOND

1. What is the main idea portrayed in the poem?
Answer: The poem Old Folks Laugh by Maya Angelou is a tribute to the positive attitude that elderly people develop towards life. It is a realistic image of them laughing aloud without worrying about how they look when they laugh. They do not care what people think of them though there was a time when they did. They do have their troubles when they knit their brow with worry and put on a false, bright smile to cover their anxiety. But when they remember happy times, they laugh with no restraint, with no pretence of maintaining an appearance. They have known hard times and happy times and remember both. Their laughter is a sign of their triumph over sadness.

2. Why does the poet contrast the way the old people smile and the way they laugh?
Ans: The old people smile to cover their anxiety when they remember the troubles of life but when they remember their happy times, they laugh with no restraint.

3. How does the poet create the image of old people laughing?
Ans: The poet creates a realistic image of the old people laughing. He says that when they laugh, their bellies shake like a jingling tambourine.


Long Answer Questions

III. Answer the following questions in a paragraph not exceeding 100 words or each:
1. What images of ageing do you see in the poem?
Answer: In the poem, there are many images of ageing are seen, first of all when the old people laugh their bellies jiggle like tambourines and don’t care for manners so they laugh loudly because they are not worried about the opinions of people. Another thing is that when they laugh there is saliva glistening on the corners of the mouth and their head wobble and necks brittle which is a clear indication of ageing. Being experienced ways of the worlds they have learned to laugh at the good as well as the bad experience or memories. They laugh loud because they know that their suffering is soon coming to an end. These are the physical and mental features of the old people described in the poem.

3. Comment on the subject of death discussed in the concluding lines of the poem.
Answer: The final stanza offers an explanation to – why old people laugh. The poem suggests that they laugh because laughing make the difficult things in life bearable, such as the idea of death.
Man’s life is a fight to escape from the catch of death. In order to survive, life itself becomes a struggle. And man neither gets to enjoy all his life nor accept the pain of the inevitable death. However, according to poet laughter is what enables the old folks to accept death which the poetess refers to as ‘dear painless death.’ They laugh because their experience of the world made them to
forgive life for the hardship it has caused.

3. Why does the poet calls death “dear and painless?”
Answer: The old people have thought over the certainty of the death. Death is considered as the enemy of man. Old age is often a difficult time to live. The poet has already told the physical condition of them, which suggests the nearness of old people’s death. Death is important to them, with it comes their relief from frailty. ‘Dear’ also shows us that they have accepted their fate and are thus at peace. And they want dear death to take them to a painless world. They have forgiven everything and everyone that has never ever brought them is grief or hardship. ‘Generously’ suggests that their forgiveness was undeserved and that they the life was for the most part,
merely an inconvenience to them.

4. Discuss the laughter as a metaphor for freedom.
Answer: Maya Angelou has used laugher as a metaphor for freedom in her poem ‘old folks laugh’. She says that when old people laugh they laugh spontaneously, uncontrolled and freely because they experience freedom and laugh loudly as they want. But when young people laugh they have to care about the facial appearance and curves and make-ups. Sometimes they simper as though they laugh. But the old people don’t bother about the public. They laugh as they wish and show us an act of liberation. They laugh the way they want and not the way others want. This is what we say freedom to express our will wherever or whenever we want, so Maya Angelou shows even the old peoples’ laughter is the metaphor for freedom.

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Essay Type Questions

IV. Answer the following questions in not more than 300 words each:
1. ‘Old folks laugh’ is a celebration of old age. Consider how the poet uses imagery and diction to convey this.
Answer: Surely, the poem old folks laugh is a celebration of old age. The poet has used images and diction to convey that celebration mood. The poem starts by saying that younger generation is spending their content of acting smile by holding their lips carefully this and that way. They are struggling to make their laughter to fit the needs of others. Just to ensure that they are doing the right thing in the right way. Actually, they want to laugh loud but they think what others will think. And they are worried to celebrate the fun.

Now we can go through the same situation among old folks, here the mood is very different. The old folks no longer practice simpering and feel free to laugh as they wish. They don’t bother about the people around them. They laugh sincerely and loud. Even when they laugh their entire body shakes, bellies goes up and down or from side to side like ‘tambourines’ jiggles. It is an act of liberation. When they laugh it is spontaneous, uncontrolled and freely. They laugh the way they want and not the way others want.

The imagery in the line ‘The hollers rise up and spill over any way they want’ and ‘When old folks laugh, they free the world’ really it is the celebration of the old age. Here their laugh is compared to a liquid being poured into a container and then spilling over the edges of the container and even their laugh will free the world that means it will even affect those who are around him. Their only weaknesses are slow movements and the inability to hold their head steadily. But they teach us how to laugh-free. Then in their laugh, they consider the promise of a dear painless death and welcomes death which will release them from all impediments. Finally, their experience of the world has made peace with all that has occurred in their lives. The dimension of laugh is entirely different from younger folks. Maya Angelou ‘Old folks laugh’ is really a celebration of old age.

2. Would you agree that laughter is a dynamic mechanism or a survival apparatus adopted by the old folks?
Answer: Definitely when old folks laugh they adopt a survival apparatus or a dynamic mechanism. Young folks can enjoy the way they like because they are physically healthy to beat anything. But in old age, all this is not possible because their body will not surrender what the mind wishes. Slow or limited movements, inability to hold their head steadily, lose of eyesight, etc. are some of the physical problems they face. So their laughter is a dynamic mechanism or a survival apparatus to keep them go through the journey of life.

Maya Angelou says that when old people laugh they laugh spontaneously, uncontrolled and freely because they experience freedom and laugh loudly as they want. But when young people laugh they have to care about the facial appearance and curves and make-ups. Sometimes they simper as though they laugh. But the old people don’t bother about the public. They laugh as they wish and show us an act of liberation. The way they want and not the way others want. This is what we say freedom to express our will wherever or whenever we want. Death is ‘dear’ to them, it shows us that they have accepted their fate and are thus at peace. And they want dear death to take them to a painless world. They have forgiven everything and everyone that has never ever brought them is grief or hardship. So their laughter is honest and sincere and it is a survival apparatus for them to reach their final destination. The poem has triumphed over the rigidities of life. Their physical movements are slow and old age problems are unending. But their laughter has a run-on quality to
survive from inabilities.

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