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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

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What imagery identifies the theme in the following excerpt, and which words contribute to this imagery?

I had to stop talking. I discovered that to achieve perfect personal silence all I had to do was to attach myself leechlike to sound. I began to listen to everything. I probably hoped that after I had heard all the sounds, really heard them and packed them down, deep in my ears, the world would be quiet around me. I walked into rooms where people were laughing, their voices hitting the walls like stones, and I simply stood still.

Quick answer:

The quoted passage that addresses how “to achieve perfect personal silence” uses visual, auditory, and tactile imagery. Angelou is primarily drawing a contrast between sound and silence. Her description also relies on the sense of vision. The sense of touch relates to her physical position, but she also merges sound with touch using the technique of synesthesia.

Expert Answers

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Imagery refers to the author’s use of one or more of the five senses in a text to create a memorable impression. When Maya Angelou explains what she did when she realized she “had to stop talking,” she uses imagery—as one might expect—that relates to the sense of hearing. The quoted passage in which she explains how she “discovered [how] … to achieve perfect personal silence” relies on visual and tactile as well as auditory imagery. The author also makes some unexpected sensory combinations or substitutions, using the literary device of synesthesia.

Angelou explains how remaining silent worked in combination with expanded listening. She states her hope that she could achieve a quiet world, but found that was not the case. In the passage, words that raise images related to sound include “talking,” “listen,” “heard,” “ears,” and “laughing,” as well as “silence” and “quiet.”

By describing what she and other people did, she also uses visual imagery. The reader can picture her as she “walked into rooms” and “stood still,” watching other “people … laughing.”

The unusual combination of sensory impressions occurs near the beginning and near the end of the passage. Angelou combines tactile and auditory images in her statement, “I had to … attach myself leechlike to sound.” A leech is an insect that clings so tenaciously to almost any surface that it is difficult to remove. “Sound” is not an object to which a leech may be attached, so her use is metaphorical. Similarly, she describes people’s “voices hitting the walls like stones.” Here, she uses a simile to combine the tactile sensation of an object’s impact with an auditory sensation.

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