Maya Angelou, "Phenomenal Woman"/Analysis and interpretation

Angelou was an Afro-American and because of her nationality she experienced discrimination and was aware of the way the society looked at people like her. But Angelou was very proud of herself and wanted the world to see it. She was not afraid of speaking in public, she used to do so to help others that were the victims of discrimination. She was also fighting for the women, she wanted women to have the same rights as men. In her poem „Phenomenal woman” Angelou speaks as a self-confident woman, she wants to show the world what makes her beautiful and she expresses it in a various way.

Let’s start with the form of the poem. The poem is like a ballad, it is a free verse narrative. There are no conventional rhymes, just some sporadically important ones. The persona speaks directly in a personal voice(first person singular). The poem seems to have a refrain – four last lines in every stanza are the same. It is something that is very often used in poems and songs. Angelou could have been inspired by her background in dance as the poem seems to have some musical aspect (there is a set rhyme scheme and the refrain). The overall shape of the poem resembles a woman’s natural curves – another way of emphasizing what she was writing about. The poem seems to be like a liberated women, it is free from any norms, poetic norms especially. Angelou claims that „Beauty is even more than skin deep”, it comes with a confidence, a woman doesn’t have to look like a model to consider herself beautiful and worth looking at. One of the devices Angelou uses is imagery. It is used to describe herself, the poem includes a description of Angelou’s body and since not everyone may know what she looked like the use of imagery is very appropriate in making people understand her poem very well and making sure the message will be read correctly by the readers. The poem seems to have an asyndeton device as well as Angelou does not use any conjunctions (apart from „or” in one of the lines) between the lines. The other aspect worth mentioning is the fact that Angelou in her poem is being ironic, we can not say we do not see that the irony is present in this poem. She is stating that the world’s view on perfect women (actually, how they should look like) is ridiculous – she is not saying it directly but we can read it between the lines. What is interesting and worth noticing in a way that Angelou described her features in every stanza is the fact that every line beginning with „the” e.g. „The sun of my smile/ The swing in my waist / the flash of my teeth” etc have 5 syllables. They all have the same number of syllables, maybe it is something that would be associated with the musical aspect of the poem or the poet did it on purpose just to make those lines with the explanations what makes her beautiful, stronger and very clear to the readers. Those phrases beginning with „the” could be interpreted as epanaphora as „the” is being repeated in the same position (at the beginning) and in adjacent lines:

"The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care," etc.

There is a glossary of the terms that appear in the analysis and interpretation of the poem.

Term Description
Alliteration The repetition of initial stressed, consonant sounds in a series of words within a phrase or verse line. Alliteration need not reuse all initial consonants; “pizza” and “place” alliterate.
Assonance The repetition of vowel sounds without repeating consonants; sometimes called vowel rhyme.
Asyndeton is a figure of speech in which one or several conjunctions are omitted from a series of related clauses.
Ballad A popular narrative song passed down orally. In the English tradition, it usually follows a form of rhymed (abcb) quatrains alternating four-stress and three-stress lines.
Epanaphora a rhetorical device consisting of repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive sentences.
Epiphora is the repetition of the same word or words at the end of successive phrases, clauses or sentences. It is also known as epistrophe and occasionally as antistrophe. It is a figure of speech and the counterpart of anaphora. It is an extremely emphatic device because of the emphasis placed on the last word in a phrase or sentence.
Free verse Nonmetrical, nonrhyming lines that closely follow the natural rhythms of speech. A regular pattern of sound or rhythm may emerge in free-verse lines, but the poet does not adhere to a metrical plan in their composition.
Hyperbole A figure of speech composed of a striking exaggeration.
Imagery in a literary text, is an author's use of vivid and descriptive language to add depth to his or her work. It appeals to human senses to deepen the reader's understanding of the work. Powerful forms of imagery engage all of the senses and use metaphors to express ideas and concepts.
Irony As a literary device, irony implies a distance between what is said and what is meant. Based on the context, the reader is able to see the implied meaning in spite of the contradiction.
Metaphor A comparison that is made directly or less directly, but in any case without pointing out a similarity by using words such as “like,” “as,” or “than.” DO NOT USE: "LIKE<AS<THAN"
   A comparison that is made directly or less directly  (COMPARING 2 DIFFERENT OR ALIKE THINGS) YOU WILL USE: "LIKE<AS<THAN"

Personification A figure of speech in which the poet describes an abstraction, a thing, or a nonhuman form as if it were a person.
Refrain A phrase or line repeated at intervals within a poem, especially at the end of a stanza.

The analysis and interpretation of every stanza

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.  
I say,  
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  
Phenomenal woman,  
That’s me.  

The first stanza Angelou starts by stating that pretty women are thinking what is making her look beautiful as she is not a type that would fit into the designers clothes and look good in them so that makes other women wonder. She uses alliteration – „Pretty women wonder”. When she explains what is her beauty she states that the other women consider her answer as lie. Now Angleou starts listing her features or describing herself to show what her answer is. It is something that she has within her reach, the span of her hips – she states it in a way to show she is proud of her hips, which is something unusual as the women that have bigger hips usually do not consider themselves beautiful and are not proud of it at all. The last four lines in the first stanza are like a refrain, they are repeated in the next stanzas as well. It is done to make it even more clear that Angelou perceives herself as a women that is not only beautiful but smart and that she is phenomenal. The last line in every stanza is an epiphora used to ephasize the fact that Angelou is a phenomenal 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.  
I say,  
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  
Phenomenal woman,  
That’s me.  

In the second stanza the persona starts with imagery considering men and the way they look at her. She says that whenever whe walks into a place full of men, they either stand up or fall on their knees (which is a hyperbole). Angelou compares men to bees and she says that whenever they see her they all surround her and they all want to get as close to her as possible. She seems to be a godess to them and they admire her and she is a queen bee to them – they would do whatever she tells them. Angelou describing this situation with men used a metaphor - „A hive of honey bees.” Now Angleou describes what is making men behave like that around her. She uses another metaphor and hyperbole – „It’s the fire in my eyes”. Another device she is using to explain men’s behaviour is a personification„The joy in my feet.”, she is saying that her feet are able to feel joy, something that human beings can feel. And again the forur lines beginning with „I’m a woman” are repeated along with the epiphora to restate that she considers herself a phenomenal 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.  
I say,  
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  
Phenomenal woman,  
That’s me.  

The third stanza is about men that are actually wondering themselves why they behave in a way presented above whenever they see the persona. She says that they really try to answer it and it is difficult for them. They cannot touch her, which makes it even more difficult to understand why they are so crazy about her. She says that it is something inside,her „inner mystery”. Angelous says she is actually trying to show them what this mystery is but they are not able to see it. Proving she is a very happy person, Angelou gives a list of her features, descriptions of her body (She uses another metaphor„The sun of my smile.”) and the stanza is ending with another repetition of the refrain and the epiphora.

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.  
I say,  
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  
Phenomenal woman,  
That’s me.  

The fourth stanza is a kind of summary of what has been said before. Angelou sums up and speaks directly to the readers to make sure they have understood her points in the previous three stanzas and are able to understand what she meant by saying she is phenomenal. Once again she says it full of self-confidence, she is proud of herself. She says „Now you understand Just why my head’s not bowed” – she states that she is so proud of herself and of who she is that whenever she goes somewhere she has her head held up high so everyone can see how self-confident she is. She also says that whenever she goes to any place she does not have to behave in a strange and noisy way to get anyone’s attention. She does not have to jump like a child, talk very loud or do anything that would make people look at her – they do it anyway. Angelou says that „When you see me passing It ought to make you proud.”, she shows that she is not an extraordinary woman, she is not super beauty, she is not a model walking on a catwalk, but even though she is not like that, still her presence should make people feel proud of themselves and probably of her as well. And again she lists her features. She uses assonance„It’s in the click of my heels”. The stanza ends with the refrain and the epiphora.