By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Still I Rise’ is a poem by the American poet Maya Angelou (1928-2014), published in her 1978 collection And Still I Rise. A kind of protest poem which is defiant as well as celebratory, ‘Still I Rise’ is about the power of the human spirit to overcome discrimination and hardship, with Angelou specifically reflecting her attitudes as a black American woman.
You can read ‘Still I Rise’ here.
‘Still I Rise’: summary
Beginning with a pointed and direct reference to ‘you’, Angelou opens her poem with a neat piece of wordplay: ‘write down in history’ means both ‘write down the history of me and my people’ but also ‘write me down, i.e., downplay me and my achievements by lying about me’. Although people may seek to belittle her and other African-Americans, Angelou asserts that, even if she is trodden into the dirt, like the dust rising from someone’s boot, she, too, will rise and will not be defeated.
In the second stanza, Angelou poses a direct question. Is her sexuality, her confidence in herself and her own attractiveness, upsetting? She walks with confidence, as if she is as rich as an oil baron. And (moving to the third stanza) like the sun and the moon which rise every day and night, and like our hopes for a brighter future which persist despite hard times, she will continue to rise, too.
The moon image suggests the tides of the sea (which are a result of the moon’s gravitational pull on the earth’s seas), which also go out but come in again, as regular and dependable as the sunrise and sunset every day.
In the fourth stanza, more questions follow: Angelou accuses her addressee of wanting to see her spirit broken. But in the fifth stanza, she asserts her ‘haughtiness’: she holds her head high, rather than bowing it in submission or defeat. She laughs with the confidence and self-assurance of someone who is rich beyond their wildest dreams, with gold mines in their back yard.
The sixth stanza sees Angelou asserting her defiance: cruel words and unkind looks, and ‘hatefulness’ (a word which flickers with the dual meaning of both ‘detestable attitudes’ and ‘hatred for others’), may be slung at her and other black people, but they will rise ‘like air’: naturally and lightly.
The seventh stanza revisits the ‘sassiness’ mentioned in the second stanza, only this time it has been transformed into out-and-out sexiness. Angelou offers another variation on the confident swagger mentioned in earlier stanzas: this time, she looks as though she has diamonds at the ‘meeting’ of her ‘thighs’. The bodily or sexual and the wealthy and material have finally met and become one.
‘Still I Rise’ concludes by departing from the quatrain form used up until this point, instead ending with fifteen lines which see the refrain ‘I rise’ repeated multiple times. Angelou asserts that she, and others, rise from the ‘huts of history’s shame’ at how it has treated black people over the centuries. She is a ‘black ocean’, powerful, energetic, and vast, and she can bear and weather the tidal fluctuations that life throws at her.
Indeed, she is leaving behind those dark times of ‘terror and fear’ and a new dawn is beginning, which is brighter and more hopeful. Her ancestors, who had to endure slave labour and then, even once freed, generations of racial prejudice, dreamed of such a time, and now it is here: their ‘gift’ to her is in establishing the dream, which has now been realised, thanks to the struggles and fights of the Civil Rights campaigners like Angelou herself.
‘Still I Rise’: analysis
Maya Angelou’s work, both her poetry and her autobiographies, is about the importance of not being defeated by the obstacles and challenges life throws at you. When ‘you’ here denotes an African-American woman who grew up with more than her fair share of hardship, the message of her poems becomes even more rousing: Angelou had known what it was to struggle.
Despite these hardships, which included growing up as one of the few black girls in the town in Arkansas where she spent ten years of her childhood, Maya Angelou consistently reaffirms the positive and inspirational aspects of humanity, and ‘Still I Rise’ is one of her best-known poems which assert the life-affirming qualities within the human race.
Angelou acknowledges and even confronts directly the many oppressions and discriminations faced by black people throughout history, but the poem’s message is overwhelmingly positive and hopeful.
‘Still I Rise’ can be classified or categorised as an example of a lyric poem, because although it is not designed to be sung, it is a poem spoken by a single speaker, in which she expresses her thoughts and feelings. And the poem is both a personal lyric, a channelling of Angelou’s own tough upbringing and experiences, and a poem about a nation developing during the Civil Rights era, in response to writers and activists including Angelou herself.
‘Still I Rise’ is composed largely in quatrains rhymed abcb. The line lengths vary and the number of syllables and beats in each line also varies, giving the poem a sprightly, unpredictable feel. It belongs to a strong spoken-word tradition where poetry is returned to its oral roots: these are words meant to be recited, chanted, declaimed out loud in the living voice.
And the shift from more ordered abcb quatrains into a less predictable form in the poem’s final stanza is perhaps best analysed as a broadening out rather than a breaking down: the poet’s passion, confidence, and optimism burst into new life, and can no longer be contained by the conventional four-line stanza form. The form of the closing lines of ‘Still I Rise’ thus enact their meaning: they are rising above the past (embodied by the more traditional quatrain) and becoming something more individualised, spirited, and bespoke.