By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Phenomenal Woman’ is a 1994 poem by the American poet Maya Angelou (1928-2014). Angelou was a singer, dancer, composer, actor, teacher, memoirist, and poet: a woman of many talents. She was also a key voice in the American civil rights movement. Much of her work is about striving to succeed, even in the face of adversity, and ‘Phenomenal Woman’ is a good example of this.
In the poem, she celebrates her own confidence and appeal which make her a phenomenal woman. You can read ‘Phenomenal Woman’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Angelou’s poem below.
‘Phenomenal Woman’: summary
Angelou’s poem comprises five stanzas. In the first stanza, Angelou’s speaker tells us that she is not conventionally attractive like a fashion model, but when conventionally pretty women ask her what her secret is to being so confident and strong, she tells them that her success stems from the reach of her arms, the span of her hips, the length of her stride, and the curl of her lips: in other words, the confident swagger and attitude she exudes.
This is what makes her a phenomenal woman: mighty and remarkable.
In the second stanza, the poem’s speaker describes walking nonchalantly into a room, and how her mere arrival prompts all of the men in the room to stand up out of respect for her, or even to drop to their knees in humility. Then these men approach her, all wanting to be close to her, like male bees swarming around their queen bee.
Why? Because she has a passion in her eyes and a glint in her smile, and can swing her waist in a sassy and alluring way. The way she walks lightly with joy in her step also draws men to her, because she’s a phenomenal woman. The third stanza reasserts this fact: she is a phenomenal woman.
The fourth stanza of the poem returns to the question of men and the effect Angelou’s speaker has on them. Men are self-confessedly puzzled by the fact they are so attracted to her, and struggle to explain it, because there is some deep inner ‘mystery’ to her.
Even when she tries to reveal the mystery to them, they still claim they don’t understand. So she tells them that her appeal rests in the way she arches her back, the radiance of her smile, the shape of her breasts, and her graceful and elegant style in all she does. These qualities make her the phenomenal woman she is.
The concluding stanza of the poem turns to address her readers, who, it is implied, are other women, especially Black American women. The speaker tells them that they should now understand why she walks with her head held high. She doesn’t have to shout about herself to be noticed.
When other women pass her, they should feel proud. Her success is in the click of her heels, the bend of her hair, the palm of her hand, and the fact she looks after herself and demands others treat her with care and respect too – because she’s a phenomenal woman.
‘Phenomenal Woman’: analysis
In an interview with the African-American critic Claudia Tate, Maya Angelou stated that all of her work is meant to say, ‘You may encounter many defeats but you must not be defeated.’ In other words, resilience, and refusing to give up even when we are knocked down or held back by adversity, are key messages of Angelou’s work.
‘Phenomenal Woman’ is a good case in point. Although Angelou’s work was often autobiographical, Angelou appears to be addressing all women, especially Black woman such as herself who have faced, and had to overcome, discrimination and prejudice, by extension.
This is made clear in the final stanza, where she tells her (implied) readers, fellow Black women, that they should feel ‘proud’ when they see her, because she represents them, too, and their struggles. Being African-American but also a woman, Angelou had experienced double prejudice and oppression, and her poem is about holding one’s head high and refusing to be a victim.
These twin pillars of her identity, her gender and her race, are brought into sharp focus in ‘Phenomenal Woman’ by being contrasted with their complementary opposites: those ‘pretty women’ who resemble fashion models in the first stanza (with this language perhaps suggesting white women first and foremost.
When Angelou was writing, Black women were still underrepresented in the fashion industry) and those men who fall at her feet in the second. If white people and men usually have the upper hand, Angelou implies, then she can teach them a thing or two.
And the key to her success is attitude, swagger, and confidence. She has pride in herself, in her sass and her charisma, and these qualities are embodied (quite literally) in the physical details she mentions in the poem’s successive stanzas: her long stride, the wide span of her arms, the swing of her hips, and so on.
None of this is to deny that ‘Phenomenal Woman’ is also, in many respects, an autobiographical piece. Angelou’s childhood was plagued by trauma, with one particularly horrific event leading her to lose her voice for five years. Recovering her (female) voice and becoming determined to ‘write for the Black voice and any ear which can hear it’, as she later put it, is an important context for this poem as for all of Angelou’s work.
It is tempting to see ‘Phenomenal Woman’ as a poem written in free verse, because its line and stanza lengths are irregular. However, the poem is not truly free verse because of the amount of rhyme in it. For example, that opening stanza rhymes ‘lies’ with ‘size’, as well as using ‘lies’ twice at the ends of the first and fourth lines (although note how the meaning shifts from ‘resides’ to ‘untruths’).
We also find ‘hips’ rhymed with ‘lips’, while the rhyme of ‘phenomenally’ with ‘me’ is repeated throughout the poem.
However, Angelou’s poem does lack a regular metre and the lines are of irregular lengths, providing her with a greater degree of formal freedom than we find in more conventional poems. The rhymes bring together different aspects of the poem (for example, bringing her ‘hips’ and ‘lips’ together, as it were, as two integral parts of her appeal), while the fluctuating line lengths lend the poem a more colloquial, improvised feel.
This is in keeping with the speaker’s implication that she does her own thing and is confident enough to forge her own path in life.