Phenomenal Woman Analysis

Please provide a critical appreciation of Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou.

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durbanville eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Maya Angelou, renowned author, poet and actress (even receiving an Emmy nomination for her part in the Roots mini series), has an abundance of experience from which to draw in her poetry. Her early life was difficult and traumatic and even caused her to stop speaking for five years, between the ages of eight  and thirteen. Angelou believes in learning from every circumstance and growing stronger. She encourages women, in Phenomenal Woman, to be proud of who they are and to see beyond superficial beauty, despite the average woman not being "built to suit a fashion model’s size."   

In explaining her story, Angelou, in the poem, persuades her audience to listen to her "secret" in understanding her own "inner mystery." A woman's unique qualities are what define her and this poem is designed to give confidence to any woman, especially through the use of repetition so that, by the end of the poem, each and every woman is convinced that she is, in fact, that  "Phenomenal woman, / That's Me." This repetition is a tool, used effectively in encouraging women.

The title and the use of the first person draw readers into this poem as it ensures that the poem does not become a generalization but reflects a very personal message. Angelou could have spoken about phenomenal women (plural) but it would not have been as compelling or persuasive. In dealing with challenges, trauma and life, it is necessary to accept what occurs because, no matter what, the essential elements of a "phenomenal woman"  remain and she just needs to be reminded of them in order to retain a positive attitude and sense of self. There is no need to "shout or jump about / Or have to talk real loud." Self assurance comes from understanding her own place in the world. 

The poem is almost lyrical and has the most impact when spoken out loud. It is not complicated and any literary devices are descriptive and create appropriate and often pleasing visual pictures such as " the joy in my feet." The description of men as compared to "A hive of honey bees" is very significant in terms of the importance of bees and the romantic notions of making honey whilst, in fact, bees are potentially deadly. This relates to the complex relationship between men and women. Even if a reader does not make the connection, the imagery remains honest and straightforward.

Much of the language used (the diction) is casual and distinct from the very powerful word "phenomenal," creating the dramatic impression (mood) which Angelou inspires and ensuring that the poem has an air of hopefulness and positive energy, ensuring a tone that is optimistic and encouraging. The use of rhyme adds interest to the poem and stresses the fact that no two women are the same, much like Angelou's use of rhyme is not uniform. Alliteration is used subtly and ensures a distinct personality, not replicated, again stressing a woman's individuality as: 

It’s in the click of my heels,   
The bend of my hair,   
the palm of my hand, 
Note the use of the "h." Physical characteristics do not create the person, in this case, the woman, but it is everything about her which inspires because "I'm a woman....That's me."