Angelou is best known for her seven autobiographies, but she was also a prolific and successful poet. She was called "the black woman's poet laureate", and her poems have been called the anthems of African Americans. Angelou studied and began writing poetry at a young age, and used poetry and other great literature to cope with her rape as a young girl, as described in Caged Bird. According to scholar Yasmin Y. DeGout, literature also affected Angelou's sensibilities as the poet and writer she became, especially the "liberating discourse that would evolve in her own poetic canon".
Many critics consider Angelou's autobiographies more important than her poetry. Although all her books have been best-sellers, her poetry has not been perceived to be as serious as her prose and has been understudied. Her poems were more interesting when she recited and performed them, and many critics emphasized the public aspect of her poetry. Angelou's lack of critical acclaim has been attributed to both the public nature of many of her poems and to Angelou's popular success, and to critics' preferences for poetry as a written form rather than a verbal, performed one. Zofia Burr has countered Angelou's critics by condemning them for not taking into account Angelou's larger purposes in her writing: "to be representative rather than individual, authoritative rather than confessional".