Maya Angelou is best known for addressing the world through the medium of her own life. Her works are a reflection of the social issues that were prevalent in the second half of the 20th century. “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou celebrates femininity and highlights the traits necessary for a woman to become ‘phenomenal.’ She believes that it is not the outer beauty of a person but the inner one which makes each woman phenomenal. She criticizes the biased societal expression that expects women to starve themselves in order to be considered ‘pretty.’
Stanza 1: “Phenomenal Woman” begins with a stark comment saying that she is neither cute nor has a great figure to suit a model’s size. She tells that ‘pretty women’ often wonders where the secret of her success lies. Moreover when she reveals her so-called secrets to them, they refuse to believe her. 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. Maya Angelou concludes the first stanza by saying that she is a ‘phenomenal woman’. Here the word ‘phenomenal’ can have dual meanings, one that is she is huge and the second, she has a towering personality. Thus she is huge in both physique and personality.
In the second stanza, Maya says that no matter how cool she enters a room, men fall for her and falls on their knees, they swarm around her like bees. She claims that it’s the passion in her eyes, the shine of her teeth when she smiles, the movement of her waist and the lightness of her feet that win men over. She is phenomenally a phenomenal woman. She considers herself as supreme and outstanding.
In the third stanza, she says she remains a mystery to men. Men often wonder why they fancy her. They try hard as much as they can to understand her mystery but they cannot touch her soul. Actually, they fail to understand that her mystery lies in her womanhood. 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. In fact, her influence lies in her grace, in her femininity. She says she is a supreme woman, “Phenomenally/ Phenomenal woman/ That’s me.”
In the last stanza, she asks her readers that they must have understood by then her power and influence on others and why her head is never bowed that is she walks confidently with her head always held high. She says that she need not have to jump or talk loudly to grab attention when she walks by. She influences all by passing quietly yet full of expression in every gesture she makes. She declares that her power lies in the sound of her heels, the curve in her hair, the palm of her hand. Finally, she restates the fact the she is a ‘phenomenal woman.’
Form and Structure:
The poem, “Phenomenal Woman” is structured into four stanzas and the number of lines in each stanza varies from one another. The poem is written in free verse which allows the poet to compose long and short sentences without any interruption. The language used by the poet is lucid and colloquial in nature. The language so used highlights the distinctive qualities of a ‘phenomenal woman.’ Though the language is simple but it has energetic and fluent phrases to signify the inner strength of a woman which makes her ‘phenomenal.’ Few such examples from the poem are listed below,
*the fire in my eyes
*the stride of my step
*the swing in my waste
*the joy in my feet
*the grace of my style
*the click of my heels
Tone of the poem:
The tone of the poem is that of a strong, confident woman who does not bother what people think about her. She finds happiness in her womanhood. In the first three stanzas, she describes what other people think about and her reaction towards their viewpoint. She is not embarrassed about her huge physique. She considers herself a supreme woman and celebrates womanhood.
Maya Angelou has used imagery skillfully and vividly to create a ‘mental image’ of a woman who is self-confident, loves herself and is proud being a woman. The examples of imagery are given below,
*I am not cute or built to suit fashion model’s size
*The curl of my lips
*The swing of my waist
*The ride of my breasts
*The stride of my steps
*The flash of my teeth
*The sun of my smile
*The palm of my hand
*the joy of my feet
Thus, we see the poet has used imagery to describe her whole body from head to feet and her behavioral patterns which make her a ‘phenomenal woman.’
The poem represents irony in the way the poet thinks about beauty and how the world perceives it. The poet is an African-American. She has experienced racial discrimination, rape and oppression in America. The American standard of beauty is to have fair color, sharp features and blue eyes. But the African American women do not conform to these standards. On the other hand, Maya Angelou believes that inner beauty is the real beauty of a woman. She feels confident in her curvaceous body and huge physique. She finds joy in her womanhood.
Figures of speech:
This small poem of four stanzas are comprised of a number of figures of speech.
*USE OF METAPHOR: The examples of metaphor in the poem are,-
“Then they swarm around me
A hive of honey bees.”
In the above lines, the poet has compared a group of men to honey bees who huddle around her when she enters a room.
“It’s the fire in my eyes.”
In the above line, the poet has compared her passion to fire.
“The sun of my smile.”
Here, Maya Angelou has compared the warmth of her smile to that of the sun.
*USE OF REFRAIN: 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,-
“I am woman,
These lines are again repeated at the end of the last stanza but with the addition of a ‘cause’,-
“Cause, I am woman,
*USE OF PERSONIFICATION:
“And the joy in my feet” is an example of personification.
*USE OF 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”
Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” asserts the theme that ‘Beauty is more than skin deep.’ She refutes the theory that beautiful women should have well proportioned physique and vital statistics. She disapproves the distorted view of beauty, which emphasizes more on outer beauty than inner beauty. She argues that true beauty lies within and body language is the medium through which it is expressed.