Maya Angelou’s Imagery in Poetry

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Maya Angelou, author of the poems Still I Rise and Phenomenal Woman, was not only a well-known poet, but was also an autobiographer, songwriter, playwright, dancer, singer, director, and a civil rights activist among other professions. Born in 1928 as Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, Angelou had a tough childhood growing up, dealing with many difficulties that would later impact her works of literature. Angelou had a broad career but was famously known for her work I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970) which depicts her early life (Wedin). However, that childhood trauma didn’t stop her from finding strength and confidence to speak up about things that were important to her. Angelou was known to have written poems that depicted black beauty, the strength of women, and the human spirit; criticizing the Vietnam War; demanding social justice for all (Maya Angelou) among other things. In her later years, Angelou became a civil rights activist, fighting against social injustice and issues that affected many people.

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She performed an original poem for the presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1993, On The Pulse of Morning (Wedin) that called for better future and greater things that can be accomplished together by everyone. In this clear social statement, Angelou showed her feeling towards social injustice of race, and gender. Phenomenal Woman and Still I Rise are prime examples of this. The poem Phenomenal Woman seeks to empower women, although they may not be the ideal woman in society’s standards, they can still have confidence and strength in being themselves. On the other hand, the theme for Still I Rise is that no matter what anyone may do to the narrator, she will not be defeated but will rise against any oppression with confidence and self-respect. In both poems, Phenomenal Woman and Still I Rise, Angelou has inspirational themes to encourage others in their struggles. The quality of Maya Angelou’s poetry comes from imagery she uses to express confidence, self-empowerment, and strength to overcome any obstacle.

In Phenomenal Woman, Angelou uses imagery to empower women and explains that despite her not being society’s image of beauty, she is not any less of a woman and keeps her head held high with confidence and power. Angelou starts the poem with Pretty women wonder where my secret lies./I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size (Angelou 1-2), explaining that she is not society’s standard of beauty. Many women can relate to this poem as society’s standards of beauty increase and become more absurd. In each stanza Angelou uses imagery first to show her confidence and then to state what parts of her body shows her confidence and inner strength. In the second stanza as the narrator walks into a room just as cool as you please (Angelou 15) men start to stand and gather around her. Angelou uses imagery to describe the narrator, It’s the fire in my eyes,/And the flash of my teeth,/ The swing in my waist,/And the joy in my feet. (Angelou 22-25). In this quote the image of a confident woman appears walking into a room proud and feeling good about who she is. The reader can then picture Angelou’s confidence and strength based on the images she uses. In this poem to woman’s beauty, the self-confident narrator reveals her attributes as a phenomenal woman (Bloom) playing on the dual meaning of phenomenal; physical and attitude-wise.

The most memorable image in her poem occurs in the fourth stanza, I don’t shout or jump about/ Or have to talk real loud./ when you see me passing,/ it ought to make you proud(Angelou 48-51). In this quote Angelou explains why she does not have her head bowed down; instead she is calm and confident in herself and does not need to attract the attention of others for people to look and wonder about her. Despites Angelou’s hard background, she does not lose her confidence and strength, knowing she has an inner beauty that cannot be seen or understood by other but herself. Angelou still hold her head high with self-respect and beauty despite all the obstacles society and men have put her way.

In Still I Rise, Angelou uses imagery to depict the theme that no matter what happens nothing can bring her down and that she will rise against anything with confidence and self-respect. Angelou starts the poem with this quote, You may write me down in history/ with your bitter, twisted lies,/ you may trod me in the very dirt (Angelou 1-3), showing her confidence in rising despite what is done to her. As she continues, she asks the readers rhetorical questions that further her confidence and show just how she will not be defeated. The literary critic Jacqueline Thursby, in her article ” Critical Companion to Maya Angelou,” states that ” the ‘I’ of Black poetry is not a singular or individualistic referent but a symbol for the idea of a Black collective”. Using this collective voice and imagery, Angelou reaches her readers and brings confidence even in an event of verbal or physical abuse and to continue even if this seems hopeless or not possible (Thursby). 

The most memorable image in her poem occurs in the fourth stanza, Did you want to see me broken?/ Bowed head and lowered eyes? Shoulders falling down like teardrops,/ Weakened by my soulful cries?(Angelou 48-51). In this quote Angelou creates an image of someone defeated and asks her oppressors if this is image of her would be to their liking. Angelou paints the picture and adds the soulful cries that deepen this picture by adding an auditory layer so the audience can invoke an image and sound to this defeated scene. This powerful image is part of Angelou’s theme in not being defeated and that she will rise against her oppressors. Throughout the poem she is also mocking her oppressors into seeing how she cannot be defeat; this contributes to the theme of the poem, that nothing will break or bring her down and that continue with confidence and strength. This poem like Phenomenal Woman provides an inspirational emotion that can be appreciated by many though Still I Rise can relate to a broader audience both poems carry the important social messages that were important to Angelou.

Angelou was not only a poet, but also an author, director, and a civil rights activist among other professions. She lived a harsh childhood and adulthood but despite this she became a beloved author finding strength and confidence to speak up about things that were important to her. She fought against social injustices affecting many people because of race or gender and called for a better future and for greater things that can be accomplished by everyone. Her poems Phenomenal Woman and Still I Rise are great examples of these social injustices and her stand on them. In Phenomenal Woman the poem’s theme is to empower women although they may not be the ideal woman in society’s standards, they can still have confidence and strength in being themselves. On the other hand, the theme for Still I Rise is that no matter what anyone may do to the narrator, she will not be broken or brought down but will rise against all these obstacles with confidence and self-respect. In both poems Phenomenal Woman and Still I Rise, Angelou writes inspirational poems to encourage others in their struggles to find the strength and confidence to not be defeated.

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Maya Angelou's Imagery in Poetry. (2019, Oct 30). Retrieved October 2, 2022 , from
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