Born April 4, 1928 in Saint Louis, Missouri, Maya Angelou's given name was Marguerite Johnson. In her early twenties she was given the name Maya Angelou after her debut performance as a dancer at the Purple Onion cabaret. The author's father, Bailey Johnson, was a naval dietician, and her mother was Vivian Johnson. She has one sibling, a brother named Bailey after their father. When she was about three years old, their parents divorced and the children were sent to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. Angelou claims that her grandmother, whom she called "momma, had a deep-brooding love that hung over everything she touched." Growing up in Stamps, Angelou learned what it was like to be a black girl in a world whose boundaries were set by whites. She learned what it meant to have to wear old hand me downs from a white woman. And she also learned the humiliation of being refused treatment by a white dentist. As a child she always dreamed of waking to find her "nappy black hair" metamorphosed to a long blond bob because she felt life was better for a white girl than for a black girl. Despite the odds, her grandmother instilled pride in Angelou with religion as an important element in their home.
After five years of being apart from their mother the children were sent back to Saint Louis to be with her. This move eventually took a turn for the worst when Angelou was raped by her mother's boyfriend.The devastating act of violence committed against her caused her to become mute for nearly five years. She was sent back to Stamps because no one could handle the grim state Angelou was in. With the constant help of a woman named Mrs. Flowers, Angelou began to evolve into the young girl who had possessed the pride and confidence she once had. Again in 1940, her brother and her were sent to San Francisco to live with their mother. Life with her mother was constant disorder. Living with her mother soon became too much for her so she ran away to be with her father and his girlfriend in their rundown trailer. Finding that life with him was no better, she ended up living in a graveyard of wrecked cars that mainly housed homeless children. It took her a month to get back home to her mother. Angelou's dysfunctional childhood spent moving back and forth between her mother and grandmother caused her to struggle with maturity. She became determined to prove she was a woman and began to rush toward maturity. Angelou soon found herself pregnant, and at the age of sixteen she delivered her son, Guy.
Jim Crow laws
in U.S. history, statutes enacted by Southern states and municipalities, beginning in the 1880s, that legalized segregation between blacks and whites. The name is believed to be derived from a character in a popular minstrel song. The Supreme Court ruling in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson that separate facilities for whites and blacks were constitutional encouraged the passage of discriminatory laws that wiped out the gains made by blacks during Reconstruction. Railways and streetcars, public waiting rooms, restaurants, boardinghouses, theaters, and public parks were segregated; separate schools, hospitals, and other public institutions, generally of inferior quality, were designated for blacks. By World War I, even places of employment were segregated, and it was not until after World War II that an assault on Jim Crow in the South began to make headway. In 1950 the Supreme Court ruled that the Univ. of Texas must admit a black, Herman Sweatt, to the law school, on the grounds that the state did not provide equal education for him. This was followed (1954) by the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kans., declaring separate facilities by race to be unconstitutional. Blacks in the South used legal suits, mass sit-ins, and boycotts to hasten desegregation. A march on Washington by over 200,000 in 1963 dramatized the movement to end Jim Crow. Southern whites often responded with violence, and federal troops were needed to preserve order and protect blacks, notably at Little Rock, Ark. (1957), Oxford, Miss. (1962), and Selma, Ala. (1965). The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 finally ended the legal sanctions to Jim Crow.
1) Brown v Board of Education
2) Selma Voting Registration 1965
3) Student Sit-Ins and Freedom Rides
4) Birmingham Campaign
5) Death of MLK and Malcolm X
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size
The persona in this poem is a strong, confident woman. Lyman B. Hagen states, "The woman described is easily matched to the author herself. Angelou is an imposing woman-- at least six feet tall. She has a strong personality and a compelling presence as defined in the poem" (126).
Angelou uses imagery to give the reader a sense of what the persona looks like. She states: "I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size." She then lists characteristics to help further the reader's sense of the persona: "The curl of my lips. . . / It's in the fire in my eyes. . . / The sun of my smile. . . / The need for my care."
In the second stanza Angelou uses a metaphor: "Then they swarm around me, / A hive of honey bees." This refers to the men who have surrounded her as she enters a room. When reading this I think of Scarlett at the Twelve Oaks Barbecue in Gone With the Wind.
She uses such imagery so that the proud, confident persona can be better understood.
Maya Angelou uses repetition in this poem to stress certain phrases. An example of this is "I'm a woman / Phenomenally. / Phenomenal woman, / That's me." Angelou also uses repetitiveness in the structure of her poem. The persona says that pretty women ask her what her secret is and she tells them by listing her qualities. She walks into a room and gathers attention and tells the reader why by listing her qualities. She says that men even wonder why they are smitten by her and she tells them by listing her qualities. In the final stanza she tells the reader that now they should understand and be proud of her as well and again she lists personal qualities.
Her use of repetiton helps to give the poem a flow and make it seem more familiar and lyrical.
The line length varies in the poem; as a result some words have more emphasis. Some examples are "I say," "Phenomenal woman," and "That's me."
The emphasis on certain words helps them to stand out to the reader.
An anaphora is the "repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of lines " (Canada 9/7/98).
Angelou does this in several places in Phenomenal Woman. An exampleis "The span of my hips, / The stride of my step, / The curl of my lips. . . / Phenomenally. / Phenomenal woman,"
I believe that she does this in order to create a smooth flow in the work.
Maya Angelou's poem Phenomenal Woman is very lyrical, as are many of her other poems. This may have been influenced by her career as a dancer and as a Broadway actress.
Hagen states: "Most of her other poetry could easily be set to music. It is purposely lyrical. It is designed to elicit stirring emotional responses. Much of it is meant to show fun with the familiar" (122).
Carol E. Neubauer
One of the best poems in this collection is Phenomenal Woman, which captures the essence of womanhood and at the same time describes the many talents of the poet herself. As is characteristic of Angelou's poetic style, the lines are terse and forcefully, albeit irregularly, rhymed. The words themselves are short, often monosyllabic, and collectively create an even, provocative rhythm that resounds with underlying confidence. In four different stanzas, a woman explains her special graces that make her stand out in a crowd and attract the attention of both men and women, although she is not, by her own admission, "cut or built to suit a fashion model's size." One by one, she enumerates her gifts, from "the span of my hips" to "the curl of my lips," from "the flash of my teeth" to "the joy in my feet." Yet her attraction is not purely physical; men seek her for her "inner mystery," "the grace of [her] style," and "the need for [her] care." Together each alluring part adds up to a phenomenal woman who need not "bow" her head but can walk tall with a quiet pride that beckons those in her presence.
Up to a point, "Still I Rise," Angelou's title poem, reminds us of Brown's famous "Strong Men," and it is the discovery of that point which helps us define Angelou's particular presence and success in contemporary letters and, if we may say so, in publishing. The poetic and visual rhythms created by the repetition of "Still I rise" and its variants clearly revoice that of Brown's "strong men ... strong men gittin' stronger." But the "I" of Angelou's refrain is obviously female and, in this instance, a woman forthright about the sexual nuances of personal and social struggle:
"Still I Rise," a poem about the survival of black women despite every kind of humiliation, deploys most of these forces, as it celebrates black women while simultaneously challenging the stereotypes to which America has subjected them since the days of slavery. "Does my sassiness upset you?" "Does my haughtiness offend you?" "Does my sexiness upset you?" the poet demands in an in-your-face tone through successive stanzas, leading to the poem's inspirational conclusion. The penultimate stanza is especially strong: "Out of the huts of history's shame / I rise / Up from a past that's rooted in pain / I rise / I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide, / Welling and swelling I bear in the tide."
‘Still I Rise’ begins with a mention of writing down history. There has been a movement to analyze the text books presented to students to see if they hold the true history, or just one rose colored version. It is interesting that ‘Still I Rise’ begins by making the reader immediately think of the skewed versions of history they have been taught over the years. There is a sense of lies and silent discrimination that surrounds the history of African Americans. She also mentions dust in the first stanza. This goes along with the theme, bringing to mind many blacks who were killed. However, she says that the dust will rise, indicating that although the history has been difficult, the spirit will prevail.
The second, fourth, fifth, and seventh stanzas begin with different questions. This question is spoken to those that are perceived as taking offense at the rise of her spirit. The tactic of asking the questions pulls the reader into the poem. Instead of being able to skim over the content, the reader is forced to examine his or her own beliefs. The first, third, and sixth stanzas, those that do not question the reader, end with the phrase “I’ll rise.” The mixture of questions and assertion that “I’ll rise” lets the reader know that the answers to the questions are mute. They are to be filled in by the reader.
This poem has a consistent rhyming pattern until it reaches the last two stanzas. With these two stanzas the format changes. Instead of talking to the reader, Angelou begins to assert the rising the title speaks of. She makes reference to ‘roots’ and the slavery era. Instead of these experiences being a weight around her neck, she draws on the strength of her ancestors to increase her own. She says that she is able, in fact obliged, to persevere to fulfill the dreams of her ancestors for the opportunity to be a success in a free world.
and 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.
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 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.
Carol E. Neubauer
Perhaps the most powerful poem in this collection is Caged Bird, which inevitably brings Angelou's audience full circle with her best-known autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. This poem tells the story of a free bird and a caged bird. The free bird floats leisurely on "trade winds soft through the sighing trees" and even "dares to claim the sky." He feeds on "fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn" and soars to "name the sky his own." Unlike his unbound brother, the caged bird leads a life of confinement that sorely inhibits his need to fly and sing. Trapped by the unyielding bars of his cage, the bird can only lift his voice in protest against his imprisonment and the "grave of dreams" on which he perches. Appearing both in the middle and end of the poem, this stanza serves as a dual refrain:
Paul Laurence Dunbar
Paul Laurence Dunbar was the first African-American poet to garner national critical acclaim. Born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1872, Dunbar penned a large body of dialect poems, standard English poems, essays, novels and short stories before he died at the age of 33. His work often addressed the difficulties encountered by members of his race and the efforts of African-Americans to achieve equality in America. He was praised both by the prominent literary critics of his time and his literary contemporaries.
I KNOW what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals--
I know what the caged bird feels!
I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting--
I know why he beats his wing!
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,--
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings--
I know why the caged bird sings!
In “Sympathy”, Paul Laurence Dunbar relates the many problems in his life to the problems of an entrapped bird. In the poem Dunbar shows the bird in the cage while wonderful things happen all around it. He illustrates how the sun is bright and the wind is whispering softly, but the bird is unable to enjoy the beautiful weather due to its cage. The difficulties he has encountered in life are shown in these lines: “And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars/ And they pulse again with a keener sting”. In this, the bird is not actually symbolizing Paul Laurence Dunbar, for he continues to claim how he can sympathize with the bird, yet it has his same problems, Dunbar’s cage being the racism that he constantly faced during his time period. In this point in his life, Dunbar was finding that it was impossible to find any job that could be considered meaningful or of importance, or any job that paid even averagely. He was an elevator boy at this point, and his main way of venting his frustration against a discriminatory world was through poetry. By using brilliant imagery and stinging emotion, Dunbar shows us how racism is imprisoning his soul.
"Sympathy" is a heartfelt cry of a poet who finds himself imprisoned amid traditions and prejudices he feels powerless to destroy . . . .
A poem like "Sympathy"—with its repeated line, "I know what the caged bird feels, alas!"—can be read as a cry against slavery, but was probably written out of the feeling that the poet’s talent was imprisoned in the conventions of his time and exigencies of the literary marketplace.
We Wear the Mask
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,--
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be overwise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
We Wear the Mask
Gossie H. Hudson
The Poem "We Wear the Mask" may reveal why he so often chose to write of the black man as a happy-go-lucky creature of the plantation:
Why should the world be over-wise, In counting all our tears and sighs? Nay let them only see us, while We wear the mask.
Almost without exception, Dunbar’s poems on black themes treat their subjects objectively. The formal diction of many of them demands this. They are written from within black experience but that experience is presented in such a way that the reader, black or white, can draw inspiration or admonition from the subject matter. The one outstanding exception to this generalization is "We Wear The Mask," arguably the finest poem Dunbar produced, a moving cry from the heart of suffering. The poem anticipates, and presents in terms of passionate personal regret, the psychological analysis of the fact of blackness in Frantz Fanon's Peau Noire, Masques Blancs, with a penetrating insight into the reality of the black man's plight in America:
We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,-- This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, And mouth with myriad subtleties.
The poem is also an apologia for all that his own and succeeding generations would condemn in his work, for the grin of minstrelsy and the lie of the plantation tradition that Dunbar felt himself bound to adopt as part of the "myriad subtleties" required to find a voice and to be heard. The "subtleties" lead us to expect that honest feelings and judgments, when they occur, will be obliquely presented and may be difficult to apprehend, a point of view that many critics of Dunbar have not taken into account. It should be noted that the poem itself is "masked," its link to the black race, though obvious enough, not being openly stated. Yet in this one poem Dunbar left aside the falsity of dialect and the didacticism of his serious poems on black subjects and spoke from the heart.
EITHER OPTION A:
'A good poem is not a simple verbal statement but a cunningly-fashioned work of art which can be approached from many angles.' Discuss, with close reference to ONE long poem (50 lines or more) or TWO shorter poems you have studied.
OR OPTION B:
'A successful poem is a subtle combination of message, movement, sound and sense.' Discuss, with close reference to ONE long poem (50 lines or more) or TWO shorter poems you have studied.
OR OPTION C:
Compare and contrast ONE OR MORE poems by a poet you admire greatly with ONE OR MORE poems by a poet for whom you have less regard, making clear the reasons for your preference.
OR OPTION D:
'By giving up rhyme and regular metre, poets have shot themselves in the foot. There is nothing in modern poetry to make it memorable.' Discuss, with close reference to TWO OR MORE poems you have studied.
EITHER OPTION A:
In what ways do you believe the language of poetry is ‘different’ from everyday language? Illustrate your answer with close reference to TWO OR MORE poems you have studied.
OR OPTION B:
What distinctive qualities most impressed you in the work of a poet you have studied this year? Discuss with close reference to TWO OR MORE poems you have studied.
OR OPTION C:
'The best poetry often challenges us to look at a topic or issue in a fresh, new way.' Discuss this statement with close reference to TWO OR MORE poems You have studied.