Published in 1995, Phenomenal Woman
is a collection of four poems by Maya Angelou celebrating the strength of women and the power of the human spirit. An American poet, civil rights activist, educator, storyteller, memoirist, singer, and songwriter, Angelou is referred to as “the black woman’s poet laureate.” Angelou was a prolific author, writing three volumes of essays and seven autobiographies, in addition to plays and screenplays, several volumes of poetry, and soundtracks for films. While Angelou’s autobiographies, including the classic I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
, may receive more critical acclaim than her poetry, her verse is equally as powerful and successful. Angelou’s first collection of poems, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie
was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Angelou’s poetry was influenced by African American oral traditions, and she believed her poems were best presented when spoken aloud, saying, “It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning.” Critics note that many of her poems have blues-based patterns; verses followed by song-like refrains
or choruses. Angelou employs short, commanding lines of verse, using irregular meter
to express her themes of self-confidence, pride, equality, identity, and social justice. Angelou depicts African American experiences with hardship, suffering, and discrimination but her enduring message is inspirational: the individual will overcome.
The first poem in the collection and the title piece of the volume, “Phenomenal Woman,” was originally published in Cosmopolitan
magazine in 1978 and later collected in And Still I Rise
. Critic Harold Bloom called “Phenomenal Woman” a hymn-like poem to women’s beauty. In “Phenomenal Woman” the speaker describes what makes her beautiful. She says, “Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.” The speaker’s beauty is her “inner mystery” that no one can touch, it is in her confidence and character as well as her unique physical beauty: “It’s the fire in my eyes, / And the flash of my teeth, / The swing in my waist, / And the joy in my feet.” The speaker doesn’t have to raise her voice or bow her head, she has pride and self-confidence in herself. Each of the poem’s first three stanzas concludes with the refrain, modified only slightly in the final stanza, “I’m a woman. / Phenomenally. / Phenomenal woman, / That’s me.”
“Still I Rise,” the second poem is reputed to have been Angelou’s favorite. The speaker asserts that no matter what bad things happen in life, no matter how poorly or unjustly she is treated, she will overcome and “rise.” The poem has an abcb rhyme scheme which switches only in the final two stanzas to abcc and aabb. The speaker begins by saying to an oppressor, “You may write me down in history / With your bitter, twisted lies, / You may trod me in the very dirt / But still, like dust, I’ll rise.” She defiantly asks the oppressor if her sassiness upsets him, if he wants to see her broken, if he is offended by her haughtiness or upset by her sexiness. Still, she has hope within, and walks like she has oil wells pumping in her living room. The speaker rises up from a painful past, “the huts of history’s shame” bringing with her the gifts of her ancestors to the future, the “dream and the hope of the slave.” The poem concludes with the powerful repetition: “I rise / I rise / I rise.”
“Weekend Glory” is a fast-paced, song-like poem with a varying rhyme scheme
and stanza lengths. The speaker works at a factory, which isn’t a great job, but it pays the bills. She criticizes “posers” who look down on others but buy big cars and live in condos they can’t afford. She suggests, “If they want to learn how to live life right, / they ought to study me on Saturday night.” She works hard all week so she can go out with her girlfriend and their men and have a good time at a blues joint “and turn away from worry / with sassy glance.” She says that the posers and preeners look down on her, but in reality, they’re equal with her: they are living day-to-day as well. The speaker concludes that her life isn’t heaven, but it isn’t hell, either, and it is a good thing to work, get paid, and “have the luck to be Black / on a Saturday night.”
“Our Grandmothers,” the final poem in Phenomenal Woman
, was first published in 1990 in the volume I Shall Not Be Moved
. The speaker is an escaped slave, running to freedom with her young children. She tells her oppressor, “You have tried to destroy me / and though I perish daily, / I shall not be moved.” She refuses to be kept down by injustice. She lists the racist, cruel, and crude names that she has been called, but denies and denounces them saying, “My description cannot / fit your tongue, for / I have a certain way of being in this world, / and I shall not, I shall not be moved.” The speaker maintains her faith in God even though freedom is distant, declaring, “I go forth / alone, and stand as ten thousand.” The Divine and the Holy Spirit help her forward to freedom. The speaker then describes “these momma faces,” powerful contemporary and historical African American women including Sheba, Sojourner, Harriet, and Mary Bethune. The poem leaps forward in time, where life is still hard for women: there are welfare lines, abortion clinics, loneliness, and prostitution. The speaker concludes that whatever people think of her, whatever her own failings, she will not be undone. She repeats the line “for I shall not be moved.”