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Relevant BackgroundSummaryThemesStyle

Phenomenal Woman
Maya Angelou [1928]

Relevant Background

  • Maya Angelou, an American poet, at first grew up with the name Marguerite Annie Johnson. She was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1928.
  • To understand the poem ‘Phenomenal Woman’, you need to know about the following trials and triumphs of Maya’s life.
  • Maya’s parents divorced when she was only three.
  • For the next five years she was sent to live with her grandmother in Arkansas before being reunited with her mother.
  • In Arkansas, Maya experienced racial discrimination.
  • Racism was the legally enforced way of life in the American South.
  • This poem partly celebrates Maya Angelou’s triumph over racism.
  • Maya was influenced by the deep religious faith of traditional African American life, the Gospel culture.
  • Her singing out-loud personality carried along by her faith that you see in ‘Phenomenal Woman’ came from this influence.
  • At age seven, as a result of a sexual assault, she fell silent and did not speak for five years. You can see how Maya was making up for this period of silence in this poem.
  • dropped out of school in her teens to become San Francisco's first African American female cable car conductor.
  • She later returned to high school, but became pregnant in her senior year and graduated a few weeks before giving birth to her son, Guy.
  • Maya dealt with the hardship of being a single mother, supporting herself and her son by later working as a waitress and cook.
  • Maya eventually developed her talents for music, dance, performance and poetry.
  • In 1952, Maya married a Greek sailor and began her career as a nightclub singer. She took the professional name Maya Angelou, combining her childhood nickname with her married name.
  • Although the marriage did not last, her career as a singer and dancer developed. She even got to tour Europe as a performer in 1954/5.
  • Maya recorded her first album, Calypso Lady (1957), studied modern dance, became a stage actress and did television shows.
  • By the end of the 1950s Maya was increasingly interested in developing her skills as a writer. She joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild and became involved in the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Later Maya settled in Africa for a period and worked in a university in Ghana as an administrator. There she became a friend and follower of Malcolm X, the creator of a new Organization of African American Unity.
  • Back in America, Maya worked with Dr. Martin Luther King.
  • Maya has done a huge amount to improve conditions for women in Africa.
  • As Maya grew older her poetry became very popular.
  • In recent decades American presidents have given Maya various symbolic roles.
  • She has directed numerous dramatic and documentary programs on television and directed her first feature film, Down in the Delta, in 1996.
  • Maya has published more than 30 books.

Summary

  • The poem ‘Phenomenal Woman’ is a celebration of a woman’s successful life.
  • The poem is a powerful dramatic poem, written for performance to an audience.
  • It helps if you imagine the poet’s body movements on stage as she acts out the poem.
  • Maya is a big woman, ‘phenomenal’. In the first stanza she says that she confuses the celeb types, the pretty fashion models. They often ask her to explain the impact she makes, as she is neither cute nor thin. When she tells them her so-called secret they don’t believe her.
  • Maya says her success comes from her confident body language, the way she walks, the rhythm of her hips and the way she smiles. Her body expresses her womanhood. As a woman she claims to be supreme.
  • In the second stanza, Maya boasts that no matter how cool an entry she makes into a room, men fall for her and fall around her.
  • She claims that the passion of her eyes, the shine of her teeth in a smile, the sway of her waist and the lightness of her feet win the men over.
  • Maya, men are like honey bees flying around a hive.
  • Why? It is because she is a supreme woman.
  • In the third stanza, Maya says that men can never quite say why they fancy her or make such a fuss over her. Maya remains a mystery to men.
  • She points out to them that her mystery in not hidden but expressed in her body language from the curve of her back to her smile and the rhythm of her bosom [breasts].
  • Her impact lies in her grace, in her womanliness.
  • In the fourth stanza, Maya simply restates that she is a supreme woman.
  • In the fifth stanza, Maya restates the point about her self-confidence. She doesn’t pose or seek attention.
  • Maya hopes she inspires people to be self-confident like her.
  • She claims her power lies in the way her body expresses her self-belief as a woman.
  • There is no single factor that accounts for Maya’s impact. It varies from the curve of her hair to the sound of her heels.
  • It’s got to do with the way people like her warm, caring ways and how they feel a need for Maya to care for them. They find her motherly!
  • Finally, Maya repeats the point that she is a supreme woman and people know it.

Themes

1. Self-Confidence

Maya has great self-belief, confidence in her body language and a deep sense of being a woman. She is empowered by womanhood: ‘I’m a woman, phenomenally’. By her own admission, Maya is a sort of wonder woman without the looks. She is huge in physique and personality. She knows that she baffles pretty women and draws men around her. She is so confident that she repeatedly calls herself a ‘phenomenal woman’. She sings out her inner self, though without claiming to be better than anyone else. The way she walks coolly into a room and becomes the focus of all the men illustrates her self-assurance. Maya is trying to share her joy, reveal her secret so that others can be as confident and fulfilled as she is. Maya feels powerful, but not superior.

2. Mystery

Maya Angelou says that her impact on men is because of her mystery as a woman. Yet she is not secretive about her qualities or success. Maya describes various aspects of her body language, which both express and are her so-called mystery. She even says the mystery lies in her womanliness. Yet it appears neither pretty women nor men really understand the secret to her joyous self-expression.

3. Body Language

Maya is a huge woman, not built to ‘fashion model’s size’. She refers to the passion of her eyes, the shine of her teeth in a smile, the sway of her waist and the lightness of her feet, the click of her heels, the movement of her breasts, the curve of her hair, the curl of her lips etc. All this body language expresses her passion. There is no dramatic jumping about or no shouting. Her impact lies in the quiet way she passes along, yet full of expression in every gesture.

4. Personality/ Defining Yourself

Maya argues that true self-expression lies at the heart of a successful personality. Body language is the means of such self-expression. Every gesture, every shape her body makes causes people to look at her with admiration. She impresses men and intrigues women with her energetic body movement. Maya is not influenced by the views of others about her African American identity or any facts from her background: ‘my head’s not bowed’. At the heart of the poem lies Maya’s certainty about her grace as a woman. Yet she doesn’t need to show off, to ‘shut or jump about’. In her role of poet, many of the words of the poem are of one syllable and easy to understand. They communicate her joy very well. By contrast the word ‘phenomenal’ [a cause of wonder] stands out and gets across her theme of being yourself, being a true woman, very well.

Style

  • Form The poem is like a song, performed on stage. It is a sort of speech.
  • Structure The poem is loosely arranged into five sections.
  • Language The language is easy to understand, full of the energy of everyday speech. There are plenty of energetic, fluent phrases like ‘the fire in my eyes’, ‘as cool as you please’ etc.
  • Diction Many of the words are of one syllable and easy to understand. They are casual e.g. ‘fellows’. They communicate the joy of the poet very well. By contrast the word ‘phenomenal’ [a cause of wonder] stands out and gets across the main themes very well.
  • Full Stops and Commas are frequently used and ensure that the meaning is very clear. In the first stanza, there are four full stops and four commas.
  • Comparison The images of the poem are based on lots of comparisons.
  • Imagery Many of the images are based on the poet’s gestures and body language: ‘the reach of my arms’, ‘the curl of my smile’. There is also an image of pretty women, built to ‘fashion model’s size’.
  • Metaphor Men are said to ‘swarm’ around her like bees. She compares her passion to ‘fire’. She compares the warmth of her smile to the ‘sun’.
  • Contrast [difference] The poet contrasts herself, a ‘phenomenal’ [huge] woman’, to pretty women, ‘built to suit a fashion model’s size’.
  • Mood /Atmosphere The mood created by this poem is happy and joyful. The poem celebrates the happy personality of a huge woman, a ‘phenomenal woman’. Phrases like ‘my head’s not bowed’, ‘the sun of my smile’, ‘the joy in my feet’ etc create an energetic and happy atmosphere.
  • Hyperbole [Exaggeration] The poet’s use of the word ‘phenomenal’ may seem an exaggeration but it is not meant as exaggeration. It is sincerely used in order to suggest the poet’s power as a woman.
  • Paradox [apparent contradiction] Though Angelou is not built to suit ‘a fashion model’s size’, fellows fall around her whenever she enters a room.
  • Pun The word ‘phenomenal’ refers to both physical size and charming personality.
  • Tone There is a tone of celebration and joy throughout the whole poem: ‘I’m a woman phenomenally’. Phrases like ‘the joy in my feet’, ‘the sun of my smile’, and ‘the click of my heels’ create a feeling of happiness. The poet sings out joyously ‘’Cause I’m a woman’. There are touches of humour: ‘They say they still can’t see’. The repeated ‘phenomenal’ is also humorous, a touch self-mocking.
  • Repetition The main word ‘phenomenal’ is repeated to emphasise the central statement of the poem.
  • Rhyme Many lines rhyme, though not to any strict pattern. Lines one, two and four rhyme. So do lines six and eight. You can find many more examples. The rhyming speeds up the poem and add to the light hearted tone.
  • Assonance [similar vowel sound repetition] The pattern of ‘e’ and ‘o’ sounds in the repeated sentence or chorus add to its power and energy: ‘I’m a woman phenomenally, phenomenal woman, that’s me’.
  • Consonance [similar consonant sound repetition] The repeated ‘L’ in ‘real loud’ reinforces the image of someone making their presence felt through their voice.
  • Alliteration [repetition of consonant sounds at the start of nearby words] The use of words that start with ‘f’ in the second stanza links them all together. The whole purpose is to show how fellows react to her: ‘fall’, ‘fire’, and ‘flash’. This ‘f’ echoes the ‘f’ sound written as ‘ph’ in ‘phenomenal’.
  • Sibilance [repetition of ‘s’ sound] Note how the ‘s’ sounds in many of Angelou’s lists of phrases about herself suggest that she is uttering them softly: ‘sun of my smile, the ride of my breasts, the grace of my style’. Thus sibilance shows she is gentle and not at all brash.

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