Maya Angelou: A Voice On The Pulse Of The Morning

Maya Angelou was a phenomenal woman–a woman that sung to the tune of her own ideas, thoughts, and words that in turn inspired us all.

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This next poet in our Poetry’s Pioneering Women series had a voice that rose above the crowd of thousands with rich intensity and wisdom. Maya Angelou is one of America’s most celebrated contemporary poets in modern history with multiple collections of works that have entered the American lexicon of fine writing. Her revolutionary spirit and her talent with words leaves an unmatched legacy that have inspired young poets around the world.

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.

Maya Angelou from I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

Growing Into Her Voice

From a glance at her life, Dr. Maya Angelou was a woman who saw and accomplished everything she set out to do. She was a poet, memoirist, playwright, singer, dancer, performer, director, and civil rights activist. Maya Angelou was born as Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928, the second child to Bailey Johnson and Vivian Johnson. When Angelou was roughly three and her older brother four, their parents’ marriage ended, leaving both children in the care of their paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. Four years later, Angelou and her brother were returned to their mother in St. Louis. During this time, Angelou, at the young age of eight, was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend, Freeman.

After telling her brother about what had happened to her, the man was jailed for only one day and upon his release, he was murdered. Soon after, Angelou and her brother were sent back to live under their paternal grandmother’s care in Stamps. This traumatic event extremely affected Angelou who chose to become selectively mute for the next five years, thinking that it was her voice that caused Freeman’s death. During these five years of silence, Angelou’s love for books and literature flourished under the attention of a teacher at school. She read and loved the works of William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, and more. Upon turning fourteen and her brother fifteen, they again moved with their mother to Oakland, California. There, Angelou finished high school at seventeen and three weeks after graduation, she gave birth to her son Clyde (later changed to Guy).

Angelou’s early adult life was concentrated in dance and music. She studied modern dance and African dance when she lived in NYC for a year, and danced professionally in clubs in San Francisco. Angelou had a successful music career, releasing calypso albums and touring Europe. In 1959, Angelou returned to New York to concentrate on her writing where she met many other African/Black American writers upon joining the Harlem Writers Guild. For the rest of her life, Angelou wrote poetry and memoirs, wrote and directed movies and plays, and played a large role in the Civil Rights Movement. Looking at her life, Dr. Angelou was fearless when it came to chasing after her passions and standing for what she wanted with determined strength and grace.

IMAGE VIA PBS

The Depth and Intensity in Angelou’s Words

In my books, the poetry of Maya Angelou is immortal, is gold, and completely incomparable. Her poetry was intimately personal while at the same time, struck a common response in us the readers. Angelou’s writing was deeply insightful and reflective, centering her experiences as a Black American woman growing up in the south. When reading Angelou’s writing, specifically her poetry, we must consider her lived experiences as a Black woman. She grew up within the context of Jim Crow America, and as a Black woman, Angelou endured racism and misogyny, specifically Black misogyny that affected Black woman. Her work would soon become central in African and Black American literature.

Angelou’s poetry took on a certain lyricism that was candid and simple, full of emotive language and sincerity. Fond of the strength of repetition in her poetry, her words took on an intrinsic musicality that seemed to thrum on the edge of her powerful voice. She wrote with an intensity that transcended all experiences and through her perspective, she reached within the depth of humanity with clarity and vulnerability. From her lyricism, Angelou displays the strength in individuality and the hope in despair.

Looking at “Phenomenal Woman”

VIDEO VIA WRITERMANGELOU

“Phenomenal Woman” (1978) from Still I Rise

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
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,   
That’s me.

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
Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

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
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

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
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Maya Angelou is a poet that must be heard, must be listened to in order to understand the full effect of her poetry. I mentioned before, her poetry thrums with an intrinsic musicality that her voice enriches in tones and affectations. Her poetry, in short, is performance. In “Phenomenal Woman,” we as the readers and audience see this. You understand how she, the speaker, embodies “phenomenal woman” in her repetition of language and in her command of voice and body language. The language that Angelou uses in this poem draws us in and shows us that it is her individuality, her spirit and confidence in her own womanhood, that makes her simply woman in the most phenomenal ways.

In all, Dr. Maya Angelou is phenomenal woman as her life and works have proven.

If you enjoyed this article, take a look at another featured poet in our series on influential woman poets–Sarojini Naidu–here.

FEATURED IMAGE VIA FAILURE BEFORE SUCCESS