Maya Angelou Questions and Answers

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What is the form of Maya Angelou's poem "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?"  

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Lynn Ramsson eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Maya Angelou's caged bird and her song is a powerful metaphor for Angelou's own experience as a black woman and artist; she uses this metaphor again as the title for her autobiography, indicating to her readership the enduring power of this metaphor from a literary point of view as well as a personal one. The form of the poem is irregular, and the absence of a clearcut pattern or traditional form is deliberate, as the most important theme of the poem is freedom, which includes the freedom to express oneself as one likes.

Though the speaker of a poem is not always the poet herself, in the case of "Caged Bird" the poet, Maya Angelou, is likely the speaker of this poem. With this argument in mind, the reader can better appreciate and understand Angelou's plight as a black female poet in America. Thanks to the challenges that have faced black Americans throughout history, beginning with the complicated and horrifying history of the American slave trade and continuing to the present day with the problems engaged by the Black Lives Matter movement, Angelou is a voice for caged birds everywhere, or black individuals who have had to live with the racism that keeps them trapped their whole lives. She knows exactly why the caged bird sings, or why black individuals in America refuse to be silenced by racism; the impulse to sing and to express one's own emotions, desires, and need for freedom does not evaporate just because one is trapped by a situation out of his or her own control. This need for freedom is identifiable in the free and open form of the poem.

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accessteacher eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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This excellent poem, so closely linked in theme to Maya Angelou's autobiographical work bearing the same name, structurally uses an irregular form in order to convey its message. The stanza lengths varies, moving from 7 lines to four lines to finally eight lines, and it is interesting to note that the rhyme scheme always begins with a regular rhyme with the first and third lines, but that the second and fourth lines do not have a regular rhyme, with the final word of the final line never rhyming. Note the following example:


The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and is tune is heard
on the distant hill for the caged bird
sings of freedom

This of course structurally mirrors the position of the caged bird as the rhyme scheme suggests confinement and an inability to express oneself, with the freedom that the bird desires being suggested through the alternating lines that do not have a fixed rhyme scheme. The form that Angelou chooses to use in this poem is therefore one in which a variety of different length stanza forms are adopted with a rhyme scheme that echoes the position of the bird that is the subject of this poem.

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