Give a critical analysis of the poem "Phenomenal Woman" by Maya Angelou.

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emilyknight7 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

To critically examine Angelou's poem "Phenomenal Woman," let us first look at the structure. The poem is written in free verse, with an irregular rhyme scheme. It does have a clear rhythmic ebb and flow to it when read aloud. This rhythm, paired with the way the lines of the poem look on the page, is suggestive of the curves of the female form, thus allowing the structure of the poem to emphasize the theme of natural feminine allure. 

Angelou uses repetition throughout the poem to bind it together poetically, as well as to emphasize her main point. The rhythm created by the repetitions in lines like:

"The reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my steps,
The curl of my lips" (lines 6-9)

serve the purpose of listing the narrator's feminine attributes in a predictable way throughout the poem, but also create the rhythm and sway that evokes a curvy woman swinging her hips as she strolls down a street. 

Angelou also uses repetition in the final four lines of each stanza:

"I'm a woman
Phenomenally
Phenomenal woman,
That's me."

This chorus acts a repetition of her thesis for the poem: that her power, beauty and grace come from her inherent femininity, rather than an external trait granted by society.

 

Examining Angelou's word choice, one cannot escape her decision to use the word "phenomenal." According to dictionary.com, the word can have several meanings. The first and most obvious is "highly extraordinary; exceptional" and this fits right in with what Angelou is saying in the poem. Her narrator is an exceptional woman, who intrigues both men and women, but is also exceptional because she is a woman, embodying the Platonic ideal of what being a woman means and is. 

However, phenomenal directly relates to phenomenon, which means "a fact, occurrence, or circumstance observed or observable." This definition injects some irony into the poem. The narrator tries time and again to demonstrate her innate womanliness and its power, by indicating things like the "arch of [her] back" or "sun of [her] smile" (lines 38-9). To her, female beauty and power are a clear phenomenon, observable by the senses. But the men "say they still can't see" (line 36). To them, this beauty and power is a mysterious force, unknowable even when they are directly shown it. 

Most readings of the poem correctly identify the themes of confidence in oneself and inner beauty that Angelou emphasizes in the poem. However, a deeper look, as shown above, will also reveal the celebration and reverence of the feminine that Angelou gives to her narrator.