The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Woman Me” is a short poem consisting of three stanzas and twenty-two lines; it is written in free verse. The title is significant in that there is an absence of punctuation between the noun and the pronoun. That the words “woman” and “me” are not separated by a comma indicates that the poet wishes to underscore the fact that her gender is inseparable from her identity as woman. In addition, the poet identifies herself with the female gender as a whole; she is everywoman.

In the first verse, the unidentified speaker of the poem addresses one woman, although the woman addressed represents all women. Cataloging the physical geography of woman/women in history, the speaker begins with a description of her smile. In this feature is discerned a “delicate/ rumor of peace.” Unlike the passive smile of the stereotypical woman as portrayed in American literature written by males, however, the smile of the woman in Maya Angelou’s poem represents anything but passivity. Instead, it is an external reflection of a peace found within. Yet in the next line, paradoxically, this peace is mingled with “deafening revolutions” that also lie within. The images of male power and authority that follow, “Beggar-Kings and red-ringed priests,” depict men who are powerful in themselves but who also seek woman’s power—specifically, woman’s sexual power. Woman is portrayed as being in the “grasp of Lions,” yet these lions rest in her “lap of Lambs.”

In the second stanza, the woman’s tears are compared to jewels in a crown. These tears, which caused “Pharaohs to ride/ deep in the bosom of the/ Nile,” most likely allude to those of the powerful queen of Egypt, Cleopatra. Woman is represented as a force so monolithic and intense that doors must be bolted shut in order to keep the “winds of death” from taking her.

Woman’s laughter, her joy, rings out in the final stanza. Like her tears in the previous stanza, her laughter is so strong and deafening that it overpowers even “the bells of ruined cathedrals.” Woman is portrayed as a being who is capable of strong yet contrary emotions. She contains multitudes. In the final image of the poem, children look to the woman for strength and guidance. She provides the model, the “chart” by which they learn “to live their lives.”