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Summary and Analysis of Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou

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.

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Stanza 2:
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.

Stanza 3:
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.”

Stanza 4:
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.

The poet again reasserts her phenomenal existence. She says that she never does anything outrageous to draw attention.  She does not need to talk aloud or to jump here n there to get attention. She wins attention just to be what she is. The click of her heel, bend of her hair, her caring palm make her self-sufficient. She is complete since she is a woman and she needs not to gloss up herself to soar above. This audacity of thought, this proud claim, this supreme confidence makes her a phenomenal woman.

Poetic Devices

Metaphor

  1. “Then they swarm around me

A hive of honey bees.”

In the above line poet compares desiring men to bees flocking after the poet for her unique charm.

2. “It’s the fire in my eyes.”

The poet here uses a very commonplace metaphor of fire that defines poet’s passion.

3.“The sun of my smile.”

Here, Maya Angelou has compared the warmth of her smile to that of the sun.

Refrain: “I am woman,

Phenomenally.”

This line gets repeated in all the stanzas of the poem which asserts n reasserts poet’s unflinching confidence about her phenomenal identity.

*A refrain is a line, a part of line or a group of lines which is repeated in the course of a poem, sometimes with little changes usually at the end of a stanza. The last four lines of the first three stanzas of the poem, “Phenomenal Woman” should be noted,-

Personification:“And the joy in my feet”

In the above phrase, joy is compared with a subservient person throwing himself at the feet of the poet.

Alliteration: The repetition of the consonant sounds at the beginning of words is called alliteration. Examples of alliteration from the poem are,

“pretty woman wonder”

“they say they still can’t see”

“the sun of my smile”

Tone of the Poem

The voice that runs through the poem is that of a confident woman who celebrates her body without any inhibition.

Imagery: Two daunting images consolidate the upbeat mood of the poem. First one is men like bees flock after the poet who denounces all the beauty stereotypes and prefers to lead her life on her own way. Second image is men coming onto their knees in their desperate persuasion of a woman who downplays all social conventions and becomes quite an enigma to them.

Irony: The poem has a deep ironical voice. American market constructs their own standard of beauty which only celebrates fair colour, sharp features and blue eyes. Here Maya Angelou makes a strong case for those who do not fall into this category. Herself being a representative of Afro-American origin, she lampoons the conceived notions of beauty and finds joy in her liberated self which defies any structure.

Conclusion

The poem starts with biting response from a poet who is supremely self-confident. She does not care to fit into mould of beauty that popular culture constructs. Despite the absence of a scintillating figure, she draws attention from her male suitors. Surprised by her popularity, many women ask her the reason. In reply, the poet lampoons all the beauty stereotypes and asserts the supremacy of her liberated sel. She does not have a qualm of doubt about her supremacy and never really bothers to change herself to draw more male attention. Her nonchalance, her rejection of stereotype, her supreme air of confidence becomes a mystery which her male suitors cannot demystify. This inability to decode the enigma makes them more vulnerable for the poet. The poet never does anything outrageous to draw attention and it is her subtlety of action, the exuding confidence, the assuring smile, the light movement of feet, the sharp smile make her a winner.

Go through the Solved Questions

Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman celebrates the spirit of womanhood. Discuss.

How is the poem ‘Phenomenal Woman’ a reflection of the poet’s personal life?

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2 comments

  1. Praiseworthy guidance.a comparison with the similar works of other poets like Kamala Das will be appreciated.

  2. Really inner beauty is greter than outer.no one is more beutiful in that sese from woman. She is wonderful in caring. The last line mentions her palm which is a blessing for serving for catering service which matters more not the raw physical beauty.marvellous.

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