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Marguerite Ann Johnson is Maya Angelou’s real name, Maya being a nickname
given to her by her brother, and Johnson being a family name. Maya Angelou
was born April 4th, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. She has had a massively successful
career. Known as a renaissance woman, and as one of the greatest poets of all
time, Maya Angelou has had a massively successful career. She’s a poet, writer,
dancer, composer, playwright, and an actress. As an African American
woman, she has also experienced racial prejudice and discrimination firsthand,
and used her experiences to write more meaningful poetry.
As a teen, Angelou got a scholarship to San Francisco’s Labor School where she
studied Dance and Drama. Shortly after graduation she gave birth to her son,
Guy, whom she raised as a single mother. (She was also the first female AfricanAmerican cable car conductor). Her Career started up in the 1950’s where she
toured Europe in the production of the opera, Porgy and Bess and recorded her
first album. She later moved to New York and joined the Harlem Writers Guild,
and performed in and wrote other productions.
Angelou spent most of the 1960’s traveling abroad working as an editor and a
freelance writer. She moved to Egypt, then Ghana where she got a job at the
University of Ghana. After returning to the United States, in the 1970’s she wrote
her first memoir, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, which made her
internationally known. She has written a total of 6 volumes of her
autobiography, and continued to write and do groundbreaking things, such as
reading an original poem at President Clinton’s 1993 Inauguration.
Maya Angelou has been nominated for and received many awards. She was
nominated for an Emmy award a Tony award, and a Pulitzer Prize. She was
awarded the Lincoln metal, and the Presidential Metal of the Arts. She has also
received 3 Grammy awards.
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was written in 1969 by Maya Angelou. It is an autobiography
about the early years and lives of African-Americans. It is about the brilliance in each character’s
strength, glory, love, and the overcoming of African-American racism and post-trauma received
from the slave masters. Maya changes from an inferior racism victim from her owner into a
dignified woman against prejudice and their minorities. Within the story, it informs you of African
American women during the years of the Civil Rights Movement, where women and others strived
for equality and justice in their community and nation. It explains the hardships of Maya being a
mother by the age of seventeen, criticism for racism nationwide, family is all we have in the end,
and independence. Her autobiography explores cases of victims of identity, rape, sexuality, and of
course, racism in a male dominant society.
“Phenomenal Women” was written in 1978 by Maya Angelou, but wasn’t officially published until
1994. It is a poem written about feminism, which is still a stirring controversy in our society today as
well. It informs you of the personality of a typical feminist fighting and advocating for her social,
political, legal, and economic rights to be equal to men’s. It explains why a woman should love
herself, even if she doesn’t consider herself to be beautiful. The use of language, tone, and mood
displays that the speaker was abused. Maya Angelou was raped and went through sexually and
physical abuse as a child. She stayed silent for five years, but after that, she learned that words
evoke power. Her pride, hope, talent, confidence, and inspiration rose from the torture and
neglect she experienced all throughout the beginning stages of her life.
The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.
for the caged bird
sings of freedom
But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing
The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
The free bird thinks of another breeze
an the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
The poem "Caged Bird" by Maya Angelou is a poem that does not follow guidelines of
which most poems are written along such as a rhyme scheme or meter. Instead, this poem
is phenomenal due to the fact that even though it lacks meter and a rhyme scheme, it has
a powerful impact on the reader. With the use of alliteration, rhyme, and assonance, Maya
Angelou is able to instill vivid emotions and images within the reader's mind.
Many traditional poems follow a strict rule of rhyme and meter, but "Caged Bird" by Maya
Angelou expresses feelings with more freedom while still using other devices like alliteration,
rhyme, and assonance. Alliteration is a literary device that repeats consonant sounds at the
beginning of words. Maya Angelou uses alliteration in lines like "But a birds that stalks/down
his narrow cage/can seldom see through/his bars of rage…and the fat worms waiting on
the dawn-bright lawn." The first sign of alliteration is seen when Maya Angelou uses the "s"
sound when she writes "...seldom...see", creating a feeling of excitement because it was so
unexpected and another sign is the use of the "w" sound to describe the worms. The
concept of rhyme is rather simple, it just requires words that are spaced apart to sound the
same at the end and rhyme and while a solid scheme is absent, it is still used and helps to
create rhythm. "The caged bird sings/with a fearful trill/of things unknown/but longed for
still/and his tune is heard/on the distant hill/for the caged bird/sings of freedom" In this
example, the words "trill," "still," and "hill" rhyme while "bird" and "heard" do, too. Lastly,
assonance is preformed with the repetition of the vowel sounds of non-rhyming words. We
see assonance used in the poem with a line like the following: "But a caged bird stands on
the grave of dreams." Hearing the repeated "a" sound, makes the reader think more on the
meaning of the line, because of the way it is laid out. This is a hard technique to use
correctly, but Maya Angelou was very clever and used assonance extremely well
(Pedone). As we can see, the careful manipulation of words and literary devices that Maya
Angelou uses in this poem give the poem its unique form.
The poem I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings can be interpreted
clearly as a struggle between the bird and its longing for
freedom outside of its cage. The poem weighs the freedom
between a free bird and a bird behind bars or trapped in a
cage. The bird that is trapped sings for its freedom despite that
“his wings are clipped and his feet are tied”. This poem can be
taken as an allegory for the struggle between an oppressor
(symbolized by the cage/bars) and the freedom of the bird (the
oppressed) and their will to still speak (sing) of freedom they
dream of.
Although I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was written towards a certain
subject (namely Maya’s own experience as an African American woman),
the poem can be applied to essentially any situation between the oppressor
and oppressed. Because of the openness of the poem on the surface and
how general the topic of oppression is, the specific interpretation of the
poem can be applied to many places. Oppression, despite seeming like a
thing of the past, is very much part of today’s society, even if we don’t like to
think that. This is why, even today, I Kknow Why The Caged Bird Sings is still
taught and read; the poem is still relevant to current issues and carries across
a message broad yet powerful enough to stand the test of time.
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
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.
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
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.
Men themselves have
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can't touch
My inner mystery.
I walk into a room
When I try to show them,
Just as cool as you please,
They say they still can't see.
And to a man,
I say,
The fellows stand or
It's in the arch of my back,
Fall down on their knees.
The sun of my smile,
Then they swarm around me, The ride of my breasts,
A hive of honey bees.
The grace of my style.
I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.
Now you understand
Just why my head's not
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
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.
"Phenomenal Woman" is a poem that relates to Maya's life and she carefully chooses words to
construct four stanzas full of empowerment. These five stanzas are also very abundant in the
devices used to portray the emotions that Maya is making a endeavor to communicate. This
poem uses devices such as imagery, metaphors, repetition, rhyme, assonance, consonance,
alliteration and sibilance.
Although there is no set meter, the use of other devices create a sound in the poem that gives
the feeling that it should be sung. This is because the devices of imagery, metaphors, repetition,
rhyme, assonance, consonance, alliteration and sibilance exist in harmony. Imagery is found
throughout the poem and are based on the poet's actions and gestures, such as "the curl of
my smile" and "the reach of my arms." We can see the use of metaphors when she compares
her smile to the sun and her passion to fire. Her usage of repetition is obvious in this poem
because at the end of many stanzas, she repeats the idea that she is a phenomenal woman.
"I'm a woman,/ Phenomenally./ Phenomenal woman/ That's me." Assonance is the repetition of
similar vowel sounds and there is a pattern of the sounds of "e" and "o" that add a sense of
power to the poem. Consonance is similar to assonance, but it repeats the sounds of
consonants and when she says things "real loud" in the poem, the "l" sound is emphasized,
establishing and reinforcing her voice in the poem. Alliteration is the repetition of consonant
sounds in the beginning of a group of 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' ("Phenomenal Woman
Maya Angelou [1928]). Lastly, sibilance is the repetition of "s" sounds and in this poem, is used to
establish the gentle spirit of the poet, as she uses it in lines like "Sun of my smile,/ The ride of my
breasts,/ The grace of my style." The variety of devices that were used in this poem helped to
create rhythm and establish the feeling of uniqueness and empowerment.
Phenomenal Woman deals with mostly confidence as a woman. The woman
in the poem is shown as loving herself, despite how society views women and
how she differs from the typical standard of beauty. The poem depicts men
and women being drawn to her (out of desire or wonder) and her
confidence or love for herself. The poem uses short lines and rhyme to create
a pungent point and get it clearly across; that despite what others think she is
still as phenomenal as those who match the typical beauty of the times. The
poem is derived from Angelou’s own experience as a child and adult, her
own description of herself as a “phenomenal woman” (Megna-Wallace
188),and reflects every woman’s desire to achieve inner beauty and strength
for herself, not just for other people.
Surprisingly, women today still deal with confidence. The poem Phenomenal Woman shows this, as the
woman wrote about clearly has great belief in herself, which is a wonderful achievement. Society has,
for the longest time, placed women as inferior, and so certain unrealistic standards have arisen.
Beauty has been defined very narrowly and often anything deviating from the societal expectation of
a woman is deemed as ugly or undesirable. This leads to things such as slut shaming, the exaggerated
importance of certain beauty products, and so on. The poem Phenomenal Woman deals with a
woman who has overcome this and learned to love herself even though she is not the current
definition of beauty, and because of this, others love her as well. Since most of us here are overly
hormonal teenagers who can’t seem to control themselves maturely and are often very emotional
towards small parts of life such a beauty or romance, Phenomenal Woman caters towards the
concept that a woman should love herself and others should love her for that, as opposed to them
loving her for being a certain body type or hair color.
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and “Phenomenal Women” by
Maya Angelou both represent similar ideas and the norms of society
during the period of Maya’s life. It depicts the daily hardship in African
Americans’ lives, mainly focusing on women. It is about how slaves and
African Americans dealt with racism constantly, wherever they went.
Women, especially, strived for the right of equality and the opposition of
criticism, which broadens into a wider concept, now known as feminism.
It explained how Maya found hope in a world dominated by free, white
slave owners. They both inform about the difficulties women struggled
through and how they should not give up even if they are knocked
Why is it that my knees bleed when I walk
They shatter and wane and I am left to march on
stumps below the people around me
Even though when I was young the teachers who
patted me on the head and told me I was a
good little girl taught me
That everyone was who theywere and nothing
That everyone should be loved for who they are and
nothing else
That everyone had rights in their own right to be
Why is it that when I look up all I see are faces telling
me what I can and cannot be
And when I look down encouraging smiles play up to
my feet and whisper to me to do what I want
I am treated like a child in a place where I am
expected to be an adult, yet I cannot even
make choices for myself without being
scrutinized and poked at
Like an animal in a cage where the circus that loved
him crumbled
I roar at the passerby who dare to come close and
touch my chest and marvel at the shaved fur
Because I am not who they expected to see
My face screams lamb but my body yells lion and
they don’t know what to believe
So I tell them that I am a mixed breed
But they shun me for it
The people shake their heads at me and tell me it
can’t be so
I am impossible
I am a glitch in their systems, and I need to be
corrected like how an editor crosses out a typo
in red pen
I am right or wrong and nothing else
I am choking to death in a room full of air
So I hide in my rusty corner and wait till they leave,
So I can cry in peace and puke
Where they cannot see
And it hurts when they don’t do what I ask after the
500th day
And it hurts when I explain that I am not like everyone
else they have ever met
And it hurts when the other animals tell them that I
am a freak and I am okay with that
And it hurts when they leave because they
couldn’t understand
Why the lamb wanted to be a lion
Why so serious?
Poems can be funny too;
I’d hope this one is.
Haikus are short things.
Well, that’s why I made these 6.
Do I get an A?
I hope that I did;
This is harder than it looks;
It’s quite difficult.
Are you laughing yet?
You should be. It’s a known fact;
People should laugh more.
You’re probably not.
I just realized how weird
This “poem” sounded.
Well, this was fun but,
I think this is the ending.
Awesome ending right?
My hands write words upon words
Like the rest of my body, working involuntarily
It's like a machine preprogrammed to get things done
But my mind wanders, as the machine stays stationary
There I am, climbing a mountain
In my black and golden armor
I lay down on a cliff of a mountain far greater than Everest
But I'm still not done, I need to become stronger
I sit on the peak where the air is thin and take an invigorating breath
And await the arrival of the sun
I'm on a mission to save the world and I'm not afraid
And this mission has already begun
I rub my eyes and recognize I'm in class
I'm back in reality
Where nothing great ever happens
What a boring place to be
I look down at my page and see notes
When did I write this?!
Then the bell rings and I panic
"Wait, what did I miss?!"
Time slows down greatly in another class
Tick... Tock... Tick... Tock
I start to doodle, to keep me here
But get scolded by a teacher with the eyes of a hawk
I walk through the hallways full of thousands of people
I recognize not one face
Because what's left of me on Earth?
Not a trace
How do I look like in this universe of mine?
I have wings-- one black and one white for darkness and light
As fit, strong, and flexible as one can get
Because I have given myself the gift of flight
I blink again to see I'm back
People around me are concerned
They wonder where I went to in the first place
Why I say that I've returned
The universe I've created calls me again
Promising another adventure
And now I'm torn into a half life
But both parts of me yearn to venture
So I stand here today explaining
Who, what, where, and why
I act like I act with an absent mind
Being two places at once is hard, but I try
So I ride dragons and fight demons
While I'm writing an essay or two
And soaring through the sky, through the clouds
While taking a test, too
So I will write what I can write
And I will walk where I have to walk
But to protect my universe from any others
My absent mind's presence won't allow me to talk
He fell to his knees, begging her for forgiveness,
When nothing he had ever done, had ever been for
She rises to claim his heart,
The room was dark, but he could see the death in her
His strong, callused hands were still not strong
enough to embrace her,
His knees were far too weak as he fell, kneeling for a
There was never a moment when he couldn’t stand up
Her smile said pity, while her eyes said pathetic.
There’s a side no one’s seen,
Her lullaby became nothing, but lies.
He’d always let her win in chess,
But now, her queen has taken his knight.
She sat behind the fireplace, eyes blazing with
something he couldn’t recall,
Under her trance, the fires waltzed, only for her.
Her lips never moved, but he heard her screams
throughout the house,
His name scratched in the wall and inked with the red of
her blood.
He’d never felt this much danger around her,
He knew nothing of the word safety.
He sat, listening to the soft tunes of her violin,
Now he heard nothing, but the echoes of her threats.
He threw her voice into the flames,
Now he saw nothing, but the loss of sanity in her eyes.
It was a mistake opening the door,
Now he lied cold on the floor.
She goes on about, the same lady everyone’s ever
Her mind so clever, but yet, so fragile,
Her reflection is nothing of what she is,
If only her victims could see her now.
He felt cold lips press to his hand,
A dying goodbye is better than none.
Dear, love, this was your heart and you let it rule your
When you point to the pictures, please tell them his name.
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Angelou, Maya. Gather Together In My Name. New York: Random House, 1974. Print.
Angelou, Maya. All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes. New York: Random House, 1987. Print.
Shapiro, Miles. Maya Angelou: Author. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1994. Print.
Angelou, Maya. The Heart Of A Woman. New York: Random House, 1981. Print.
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