Writer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou was born on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. She shot to instant fame with the publication of her 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which made literary history as the first nonfiction best-seller by an African-American woman. In 1971, Angelou published the Pulitzer Prize-nominated poetry collection Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die. She later wrote the poem “On the Pulse of Morning”—one of her most famous works—which she recited at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. Angelou received several honours throughout her career, including two NAACP Image Awards in the outstanding literary work (nonfiction) category, in 2005 and 2009. She died on May 28, 2014.
Summary of Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou
Stanza 1: “Phenomenal Woman” begins with a savage attack on stereotypes. She proudly declares that neither she has an hourglass figure, nor she has a cute face.Her success without essential feminine traits surprises pretty women and they often want to know the secret of her success. She describes her secret saying that it comes from her confidence, the way she stretches her arms, the way she walks, the rhythm of her hips and also the way she smiles. Her entire body is an expression of womanliness. She concludes the first stanza with declaring herself as a ‘phenomenal woman’. This phrase is a double-edged sword. The word ‘phenomenal’ signifies her talismanic physical structure as well as her towering personality.
In the second stanza, Maya says that despite her not-so-feminine beauty, men used to fall for her, swarm around her like bees. Since she has a body of her own; her glistening smile, movement of the waist, lightness of her feet makes her a champion. Since she knows she is phenomenal, she celebrates what she is and what she has.
In the third stanza, she says she remains an enigma to men. Men leave no stone unturned to unravel her mystery but they fail miserably. She indicates to them that her mystery is not obscure but clearly expressed in her body language from the curve to her back, to her smile and rhythm of her bosom. This unresolved mystery, Maya feels, makes her so coveted amongst the men. She says she is a supreme woman, “Phenomenally/ Phenomenal woman/ That’s me.”
In the last stanza, she expects her readers to understand how n why she always walks with her head held high. She tells that she does not need to do anything loud to snatch attention. Rather it is the sound of her heels, the curve in her hair, the palm of her hand making her a ‘phenomenal woman’.
Analysis of Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou
The poem starts in a conversational fashion where a flock of women, intrigued by poet’s popularity amidst male suitors, want to know from her the secret of her success. Despite her strong refusal to fit into beauty paradigm, the poet gets maximum male attention. By her own admission, she is neither cute, nor she has a bottleneck figure. Her physical incongruity makes the questioning women more curious and they have a strong feeling that the poet conceals the secret of her success.
The poet proudly asserts that she is very happy with whatever she has and definitely is not going to take a plunge to beautify herself. Her real appearance, the reach of her arms, the span of her hips, and the curl of her lips make her such a phenomenal woman. What she intends to highlight is that there is no falsity about her appearance. She appears the way she exists. Such honesty of her appearance exudes tremendous confidence which makes men go
Every time she enters the room, she becomes the cynosure of present contingent of men. Helpless men used to stoop flock after her just the way bees swarm around their hive. Hive of honey bees is an interesting metaphor. As bees find shelter in a hive, helpless men seek refuge in the not-so-glamorous body of the poet.
Maya Angelou now takes initiative to decode the mystery further for the bewildering women. She is confident and that shows in spark of her eyes. She has a proud smile which exudes optimism. Her swinging waist and joyous feet show she is in firm control over the situation. This firmness, this confidence makes her a phenomenal woman who refuses to mould herself according to male desire. The repeated proud assertion of being a phenomenal woman is a celebration of womanhood.
Now, she remains a mystery to her male admirers. This ordinary looking woman sparks a desire in them and they fail to pin down the reason. Maya Angelou tries to reveal the mystery but the myopic men fail to see it. Actually, male doctrine believes in specificity. They cannot stand the idea of totality. When Maya Angelou’s entire appearance wins them over, they leave no stone unturned to fix a point. Male hegemony demands stability, a hierarchy of things which Maya Angelou’s body savagely defies. Her arch of the back, her glorious smile, rhyming motion of her breasts remains a jigsaw and single-minded men will never find the final piece of this jigsaw.
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To critically examine Angelou's poem "Phenomenal Woman," let us first look at the structure. The poem is written in free verse, with an irregular rhyme scheme. It does have a clear rhythmic ebb and flow to it when read aloud. This rhythm, paired with the way the lines of the poem look on the page, is suggestive of the curves of the female form, thus allowing the structure of the poem to emphasize the theme of natural feminine allure.
Angelou uses repetition throughout the poem to bind it together poetically, as well as to emphasize her main point. The rhythm created by the repetitions in lines like:
"The reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my steps,
The curl of my lips" (lines 6-9)
serve the purpose of listing the narrator's feminine attributes in a predictable way throughout the poem, but also create the rhythm and sway that evokes a curvy woman swinging her hips as she strolls down a street.
Angelou also uses repetition in the final four lines of each stanza:
"I'm a woman
This chorus acts a repetition of her thesis for the poem: that her power, beauty and grace come from her inherent femininity, rather than an external trait granted by society.
Examining Angelou's word choice, one cannot escape her decision to use the word "phenomenal." According to dictionary.com, the word can have several meanings. The first and most obvious is "highly extraordinary; exceptional" and this fits right in with what Angelou is saying in the poem. Her narrator is an exceptional woman, who intrigues both men and women, but is also exceptional because she is a woman, embodying the Platonic ideal of what being a woman means and is.
However, phenomenal directly relates to phenomenon, which means "a fact, occurrence, or circumstance observed or observable." This definition injects some irony into the poem. The narrator tries time and again to demonstrate her innate womanliness and its power, by indicating things like the "arch of [her] back" or "sun of [her] smile" (lines 38-9). To her, female beauty and power are a clear phenomenon, observable by the senses. But the men "say they still can't see" (line 36). To them, this beauty and power is a mysterious force, unknowable even when they are directly shown it.
Most readings of the poem correctly identify the themes of confidence in oneself and inner beauty that Angelou emphasizes in the poem. However, a deeper look, as shown above, will also reveal the celebration and reverence of the feminine that Angelou gives to her narrator.