Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou: Summary & Analysis

Phenomenal Woman: About the Poem

A free verse written by the African-American poet, autobiographer, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, ‘Phenomenal Woman’ speaks of a self-confident woman challenging the typical concept of beauty and womanhood. The poem argues the traditional outlooks and apprehensions of femininity, establishing at the same time that beauty is not only skin deep. Through the poem the poet presents herself as a woman who is not quite a coquettish belle, but is beautiful in her own way.

The poem can be considered as a discourse commenting on social outlook towards gender and sexuality, and is commonly regarded as a tribute to womanhood. The poet asserts that the looks alone do not define beauty, but it is the whole of human character and disposition that constitute for its parameters.

The poem was published as one of the four pieces in a short volume of poetry titled ‘Phenomenal Woman: Four poems celebrating women’ in the year 1995. It was subsequently published by Random House publication in a volume edited by Linda Sunshine and accompanying paintings by Paul Gaugin illustrating the poems, in the year 2000. The poem is critically acclaimed and well received as a standalone piece by readers and critics alike and it brought Maya Angelou renown in the literary world.

Phenomenal Woman: Form and structure

The Poem is  divided into four stanzas, each one starting with a scenario or a question, answering it and finally providing a justification for the same. The opening lines of each stanza either ask a question regarding why the poet is the way she is and what is so alluring about her. The subsequent five lines answer the question in the poet’s own voice. The last four lines in each stanza are recurring, emphasizing her stand that she is a phenomenal woman.

Maya Angelou is often credited for the simplicity in the use of her language and the present verse is no exception. Although the poem has no apparent rhythm, the heavy use of repetition and assonance makes it sound rhythmic.

The poem has a distinctive rhyme scheme with the last nine lines of each stanza having a rhyme scheme of ABCDC EFEF, with minor changes in rhyme pattern in the starting lines of each stanza. In many ways the structure of the poem is akin to that of romantic odes.

About the  Poet: Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was an American memoirist, poet and activist. Throughout her life Angelou actively participated in civil rights movement and worked alongside figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. She is well known for her memoirs which discuss myriad of issues ranging from society and politics to personal life. The hardship and suffering of the African-American community in the Americas in the mid twentieth century finds utterance in her poems and essays. Her work brought a new voice to the expression of the female sex and has since contributed in shaping the ideals of feminism.  Maya Angelou has been an ever vigilant figure writing about the present times and might pass off as Bertolt Brecht’s ideal poet of the dark times.

Phenomenal Woman: Line by line Explanation

Stanza One:

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.

The poet says that ‘pretty women’ wonder what it is about her that makes her so successful and confident in spite of her not-so-alluring appearance. They do not understand what it is about her that makes her command such high dignity and recognition in the society. They wonder what the secret is to her being so irresistible.

I’m not cute or build to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.

The poet is not someone who has a hourglass figure. She is not cute and does not have a fashion model’s alluring curves. Her body is not of the conventional womanly shape that has been promoted and well established in the mind of the present day society. When she tells those pretty women about her own ways, they do not believe her. They think that she is telling lies and there are indeed some secrets behind her being so attractive.

I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my steps,
The curl of my lips

Answering the pretty women, the poet says that her secret lies in the the way she is. It’s in the reach of her arms, indicating that they are bulky and stout. She says it’s in the span or wideness of her hips. Further the words ‘curl of my lips’ suggest that the poet has large lips. All of the attributes mentioned in the lines are suggestive of the poet’s corpulent (overweight) exterior.

But quite possibly the poet indicates to her reach to the influential people and her broader presence in many fields through words like “reach of my arms” and “span of my hips”. “Stride of my steps” indicates the decisive steps she takes in her life. “The curl in my lips” may signify the grandness of her speech. All these are the things that make her so unique as a woman.

I am a woman
Phenomenally,
Phenomenal Woman
That’s me.

The poet here asserts that despite the way she outwardly looks, she is a woman, and a ‘phenomenal woman’ for the qualities she has. It shows that the poet is completely comfortable with the natural way she looks.

Stanza Two:

I walk into a room,
As cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Falls down on their knees.

When the poet enters a room she is usually calm, as she says it in ‘as cool as you please’. She is not nervous about the way she looks. When she enters a room and walks to any man, all the men in the room become alert and watch her. They all either stand in respect and awe or fall down on their knees in admiration and astonishment.

Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.

As she walks into a room all the men are attracted by her. Enticed and seduced by her they swarm about her like bees swarm around a queen bee in a beehive. They are charmed by her personality.

I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist
And the joy in my feet.

The poet says that the reason why men are attracted to her is in her eyes, her teeth, her waist, and her feet. Her eyes are fiery. They have an enticing trait in them. They are warm, confident, playful and full of passion.

The flash of her teeth suggests the poet’s glistering smile. There is a swing in the poet’s waist that makes her exciting and asserts her womanliness.

There is joy in her feet. Here the poet has personified her feet to indicate the happy composure she is in when she is around men. These are the qualities of hers that make her attractive for men to behold.

I am a woman,
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal Woman,
That’s me.

It is because of all these attributes that the poet possesses that men find her attractive. This liking of hers by men makes her say that she is a phenomenal woman.

Stanza Three:

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.

The poet says that men themselves have wondered what they see in her. They do not understand what it is about her that makes her so assertive. Men themselves are unsure why they are so helplessly attracted towards her.

They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.

Men venture to understand her, but they cannot touch her inner mystery. They try to understand what makes her so exceptional. They are not able to fathom what makes her beautiful on its own. Here the words ‘inner mystery’ can be interpreted and correlated to ‘inner beauty’, that is the beauty of the mind and the heart.

When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.

When the poet Maya Angelou tries to show the men her ‘inner mystery’ they still are unable to see it. The poet’s inner beauty is well hidden, and beyond the reach of men. It is well abstruse and unfathomable.

I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.

The poet says that her inner mystery lies in the arch of her back, indicating her flexibility and adjustability. It’s in the warm and inviting ‘sun’ of her smile. It is in the ride of her breast; in the way her bosom tardily falls and rises, signifying her dignity and elegance. It is in the grace of her style; the lissomeness of her form.

I am a woman,
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal Woman,
That’s me.

Maya Angelou says that these traits of her body make her a phenomenal woman in her own way.

Stanza Four:

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.

After relating her persona in the earlier stanzas, the writer now expects the readers to understand why she walks with her head held high. She expects us to understand why she prides on herself, and why she is so self-confident. Here the tone is changed from third person and directed at the reader.

I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.

Unlike other women who shout and jump about and have to talk aloud to register their presence before men, the poet has a quiet way of going about. The poet is not pretentious. She doesn’t seek the attention and approval of the male sex by shouting and jumping in order to catch people’s eye. She also doesn’t ‘have to talk real loud’ to seek attention from men. The poet is unlike other women in that regard.

When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud

When people see her passing, it ought to make them proud. The poet wants to make the readers believe if they chanced to see her passing, it is sure to make them proud. Such is the pride and self-assurance the poet places on herself. She wants the readers to know that it would be a sheer delight to make her an acquaintance.

I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
The palm of my hand,
The need for my care

To further elaborate why seeing her passing ought to make us proud, the poet says that it is because of her constitution, her habit, her manner, and the way she is. It is in the way she walks, the rhythm of the heels of her shoes clicking against the ground in a fashionable gait. It is in the way she wears her hair with a bend in the locks.

Moreover, it is in the palm of her hand, the gentleness of her touch. She says that people desire, or rather, need her for her caring and gentle nature.

‘Cause I’m a woman,
Phenomenally,
Phenomenal Woman,
That’s me.

The last four lines of the poem form the refrain that has previously occurred in the poem, but in these lines there is a small modification in the words. The poet here begins with the line ‘Cause I’m a woman’ instead of ‘I’m a woman’ as in the earlier lines of the refrain, which indicates the poet’s wish to finally conclude the verse and present the aforementioned line of the stanza as the final reason why she is so unique. She concludes by saying that if there is a ‘phenomenal woman’ then that’s she.