‘Phenomenal Woman is one of the most “popular” poems written by the American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. It was first published in her collection ‘And Still I Rise’.
This particular poem keeps featuring in the popular culture again and again because of its crowd-pleasing characteristics. Maya Angelou said that “I write for the voice, not the eye.” It tells us why this poem is best suited for recitation.
Angelou is typically associated with African-American writing but this poem merges between her gender and racial consciousness. She lived a life full of sordid experiences.
Her life as a Black woman was three times more oppressed, first as a Black person and furthermore as a woman and that also a Black woman. In her literary works, one notices a remarkable retelling of a shattered persona and the subsequent reclaiming of power.
‘Phenomenal Woman’ has no rhyming scheme. Angelou said, “I work on the rhythm. There’s a flow to it. Then I try to make the content fit.” This poem begins with a supreme awareness of one’s feminity.
Angelou’s mysterious attractiveness is what defies categorization. She always shared a “liberating ideology.” In this poem, she translates her personal self-confidence as a woman into poetry.
She begins rendering her emotional and sexual experience together. When she says “I’m a woman phenomenally,” she “challenges the gender codes of previous eras by celebrating women’s sexuality.”
She emphasizes the fact that she is not built to suit a fashion model’s size. It is a part of the discourse on self-acceptance. She accepts however she is and celebrates it saying that phenomenal woman, that’s me. There is no gendered constraint in her intimate description.
The poet compares men around her like a hive of honey bees. She questions male power and finishes it off. Angelou expressed one time in her interview that she has written this poem for every woman.
Fanon wrote of the need to set man free by removing the uniform of the race but here Angelou takes one step ahead by setting her free by removing the uniform of both race and gender.
Angelou intensifies her mysterious power as a human being by making us rethink the traditional notion of seeing a woman. She won’t let us thwart humanity. Any prejudiced person can’t touch the inner mystery of true human beings. Maya Angelou is all about resurrection and never submitting into any kind of defeat.
The poem asks women to celebrate their agency without seeking validity outside one’s own self. The power of this poem has its source in the American slave narrative which portrays the most convincing “testimony of human resource, intelligence, endurance and love in the face of tyranny.”
The vocabulary of the poem is easily accessible. It elicits womanliness and its invincible pride in a simple yet powerful way. Her use of “I” in the poem is universally inclusive.
It has a sense of “deep, horizontal comradeship” between all women. The poem clearly says that when you see my head’s not bowed…it ought to make you proud. She evokes her phenomenal qualities again and again.
The poem, in the end, gives us a sustaining sense of self, that little us in the big us which can never be destroyed by any gender or class or race.