Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.
Maya Angelou and a Summary of 'Phenomenal Woman'
'Phenomenal Woman' is a lyrical poem that sends out an important message to the world of convention and stereotype: empowerment comes from being confident in your own female skin, no matter if you are not seen as cute or fashionable by the masses.
With relatively plain language in short lines, and repeated refrains, this poem punches above its weight and brings home the idea that a female doesn't have to conform or be beautiful to be exceptional, phenomenal.
This topic is of particular interest in these times of global social media and societal pressures—pressure to be the best, the slimmest, the best looking, the one with skin to die for and so on and so forth.
Maya Angelou published this poem in 1978 when it appeared in And Still I Rise, a collection of powerful poems that set many an oppressed woman free. Since then, the poem has been adapted and used by associations and groups world-wide involved in protest and political issues around inequality.
'The idea is to write it so that people hear it and it slides through the brain and goes straight to the heart.'
'Phenomenal Woman' is a direct and passionate poem no doubt. You can feel the speaker's need to lay things out just as they are. Yet it also contains the seed of self-knowing, of self-confidence.
'A wise woman wishes to be no one's enemy; a wise woman refuses to be anyone's victim.'
And it does convey the idea that no matter the pressures of society to conform and be who others want you to be, inner self-belief is the phenomenal bit.
Once this is accepted, you will be a happier and more complete person, a phenomenon.
'I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life's a bitch. You've got to go out and kick ass.'
In short, this poem boasts that a woman is more than the sum of her parts, much more. She is enigmatic, magnetic and is also capable of defining her own beauty.
'Phenomenal Woman' by Maya Angelou
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis of 'Phenomenal Woman'
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It's interesting to note that the people this phenomenal woman wants to address initially are pretty women. The reason why is soon revealed—the speaker is plain looking at herself. She's not cute or slender or fashionable in shape, but inside she knows she has those pretty women asking questions that are difficult to answer.
Already the speaker has a secret and, although she can't reveal all, she can tell the pretty ones about her own physical attributes. It's to do with the reach, span, stride and curl—what is within her grasp, the full extent of her womanhood, the decisive way she gets about, the allure of her smile.
The pretty ones can't quite believe what they hear but make no mistake, this is the speaker's one and only truth.
Next up are the men who are instinctively drawn to the phenomenal woman, some even start to worship her, or else cannot sustain a standing position so overcome are they. There's a sort of spell cast over these males who act as honey bees around the hive.
There is chemistry at work here and the reason why the men are all a buzz? It's the fire, flash, swing and joy—the passionate heat as she looks at them, the gleaming white set behind the smile, the sensuality and sexuality, the enthusiasm of the dance.
Despite not being what society thinks she should be—ideally beautiful—the phenomenal woman can attract the opposite sex to her simply by entering a room.
Concentrating on the male of the species again, the speaker perceives that even they can't put their finger on just why they're so attracted by this phenomenal woman.
They can ogle all they want, but this female's secret is hidden inside, it ain't visible on the exterior. Or is it? It's in the arch, sun, ride and grace—the way the spine is strong yet beautifully shaped, the power of a smile, life-affirming, the way her bosom is carried, comfortably, the smooth ease with which she manages life.
Could it be the men are looking for something that cannot be identified with the senses? Could this be the phenomenal woman's spirit, her essence, her inner being?
In a direct appeal to the reader, the speaker lays it on the line and attempts to clarify all that has gone on in the previous three stanzas. She can hold her head high because of what she is: proud of being an individual without the need to kowtow to society and its false stereotypes, its idea of what a beautiful female should like and aspire to be.
It's the click, bend, palm and need—the way she is full of energy and verve, the way she lets her hair fall naturally, her open and honest approach to life, the way her compassionate nature is a necessary thing.
The phenomenal woman's humility and respect for other's space, her dignity and inner strength mean she doesn't have to advertise her qualities or be brash and popular. No. Her essence, her well being, goes far deeper.
Literary Devices of 'Phenomenal Woman'
'Phenomenal Woman' is a loose rhyming lyrical poem, which strictly speaking means this is not a free verse poem. There are four stanzas.
If you read it carefully, the rhymes definitely make a difference to the overall sound and feel of the poem, especially in the first six or seven lines of each stanza. And at the end of each.
For example, just note the full end rhymes:
- lies/size/lies and hips/lips
- much/touch and me/mystery/see plus smile/style
- bowed/loud/proud and hair/care
In addition, each stanza has the perfect rhyme of woman/woman and the full rhyme Phenomenally/That's me.
Rhythm and Meter
There is a varied meter (metre in UK) in this poem, a mix of trochee and iamb with anapaest. The underlying beat in some lines is iambic, the well known da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM beat, the most common in English poetry. For example:
- But when I start to tell them/They think I'm telling lies.
And others have trochaic followed by iambic:
- When you see me passing,/It ought to make you proud.
Still others are iambic preceding anapaestic:
- The bend of my hair,/the palm of my hand,/The need for my care.
This variable rhythm, together with contrasting short and long vowels, make this a particularly interesting poem to read out loud and to listen to.
Perhaps the most striking device Angelou uses is to repeat a pattern, found in each stanza, which helps reinforce the message and brings familiarity for the reader, much like with the lyrics of a song.
So, for example:
- The simple short line, I say, connects the first part of each stanza with the second and focuses all the energy on the speaker, bringing the poem almost to a complete halt midway. You know this is the ego speaking, making everyone aware of the attributes on show.
- And immediately following this is the repeated mantra-like four line list of physical traits that go to make up the total woman. It's . . .
- The final four lines also drive home the idea that this woman is special, unbelievable and her presence cannot be denied. The poem becomes an anthem for the personal 'me'.
In the second stanza, the men who fall on their knees then swarm in the manner of honey bees at the hive. So the woman is seen as a sort of Queen bee, or she is the sweetness the bees need, the males busy seeking her attention.
© 2017 Andrew Spacey