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Month: April, 2012

Maya Angelou – Phenomenal Woman

Maya Angelou addressed this poem, which is from And Still I Rise, to other women – to pretty women.  So, It’s not an assertion of the power of women, but of the self worth of this woman – the poet.  She is proud, and finds pleasure in her own individuality. She is a Phenomenal Woman.  It is this that makes the poem so typical of the late twentieth century – a period in which the individual was pre-eminent – sometimes at the expense of morality and truth.  If there are no absolute truths, where else can truth be found, but in the individual?

There is a great sense of power in this verse, and the second half of each stanza is especially strong rhythmically – It’s in the reach of my arms / The span of my hips / The stride of my step.  The poet cleverly repeats the underlying grammatical structure whilst changing the actual words she uses, both emphasising and broadening our understanding of her natural power and beauty.  There is sexuality – the swing in my waist, and images that are typical of Angelou – fire and sun.  The poem is full of movement – stride, swing, ride – and this vocabulary emphasises her energy and power.

Angelou uses simple vocabulary and rhymes, size, lies, please, knees.  These show us the simple, uncomplicated confidence she has in herself, an aspect of the poem also emphasised by the short dramatic conclusions she draws – I’m a woman…..Phenomenal woman / that’s me.

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Maya Angelou – And Still I Rise


Maya Angelou’s And Still I Rise contains some poems I know well – Woman Work for example – a very simple poem which trades on the contrast between its rushed and simple opening section – a shopping list of jobs to do – and the lyrical second half, focusing on natural beauty.  It’s a microcosm of the whole anthology, as Angelou rises out of the ashes of her experiences as a black woman – shine on me sunshine.

Angelou covers feminism and racism in ways, and from a point of view, that was radical and shocking when her work was first published.  This anthology begins with physical abuse – lover’s fist.  It continues with a neat epigrammatic poem, Country Lover, a satirical comment on some men’s attitudes to women.  Her lines and vocabulary are simple; there are strong rhythms which give the poetry power and confidence, as in Phenomenal Woman, and usually simple images in which light and the sun play a large part.

Not only women find escape and beauty in Angelou’s poems – in California Prodigal for example it is he whose agile poppies dance/ In golden riot.  The images are of colour and power – explosions, dancing, defiance.  Throughout Angelou uses imagery like this – beautiful, natural – to present her characters.

At times her writing is so simple that it is like verse for children – Life doesn’t frighten me, or Aint that bad? – but it is direct and effective.  In other poems she is able to make powerful comments by using very simple ideas and precise description – My Arkansas for example – or to make satirical points neatly and with wit – as in Lady Luncheon Club.

Mametz Wood – Owen Sheers

The Medieval Dance of Death

Robert Graves original poem A Dead Boche was a graphic account of a meeting with a dead soldier in Mametz Wood. He was dribbling black blood from nose and beard, close enough to life. When Sheers returns nearly a hundred years later, the soldiers are long dead. They have become china plate, broken bird’s egg; they are now like flint thrown up by the blade of the plough; they are a broken mosaic. These images emphasise the absence of life, like their absent tongues. Is it shocking to be brought face to face with death in this way?

Sheers may be writing about death in war, but his focus is on death itself, rather than, as in Graves, on the warmongers who believe in blood and fame. He touches on that, on the callous treatment of the soldiers, where they were told to walk, not run, but it is the brevity and fragility of life itself that Sheers is writing about – they had sung but now they are silent. They appear to have been caught in a macabre dance, but now they are merely bones. The harsh angle of their necks suggests the brutality and pain of death, and the comparison with the medieval dance of death, illustrated above, is shocking and brutal. Only the earth stands sentinel wounded.

Sheers returns to this theme in later poems – the landscape, and especially the Welsh landscape, is magnificent and shocking. It outlasts us. It is our inheritance. For the father in Y Gaer it is something huge enough to blame. The people are no more than scattered grains in Hill Fort.

This is a harsh and depressing view of life. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said of the sixty million dead as a result of nazi and communist atrocities in the twentieth century, Men have forgotten God; that is why all this has happened. A world without God can be a world of drama, but it is also a world without forgiveness or hope.