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Maya Angelou: A Phenomenal Woman


Published on December 14th, 2019 at 01:30 am

By Malia Reiss

Romantic love is a goal for most people, but with this comes an inevitable power struggle. The classic movie formula is the girl in love with the football player, or the skinny nerd who wants the queen bee. Pop culture features this fantasy desire for the one in power. The “desired” have an air of mystery to them, and they have a strong emotional power over the protagonist, so much that the person becomes the main goal. Maya Angelou is one such “victim,” but her love movie does not quite work out. Maya Angelou is a modern poet, author, songwriter, playwright, producer, director, performer, and civil rights activist. She is a hero to countless due to her perseverance from rising above utmost pain and adversity. Angelou’s pain stemmed through her race, her morals, and her mental health, but one of the most heartbreaking themes of her pain is her struggle with love. With no father figure throughout her entire life, Angelou experienced two failed marriages, and she also became pregnant at 16 with the baby’s father living in denial. Angelou was later conned into prostitution by a temporarily stationed naval officer, who left her as soon as she gave him the money she earned. Even from her childhood, Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend at eight-years-old; this man was murdered for his deeds, but Angelou blamed herself for speaking about the rape, and stopped speaking for almost five years. Through the use of literature and poetry, Angelou was brought back to speech by a woman named Mrs. Flowers. Poetry changed her life, and she used that medium of expression to convey her innermost thoughts and flaws, opening her heart to her readers through her extremely vulnerable poetry. From age 13, Angelou has been able to work through her pain through men with expression through poetry. These poems reveal her private experiences, and confess the power that men have over her, despite her frequent exploitation by men. Angelou’s poems, “They Went Home,” “Men,” and “When You Come,” illustrate this true power of men through a man’s use of manipulation, mysteriousness, and fantasy. Through revealing the pain that men have caused her as they take advantage of her attachment and dependency, her poetry brings insight and inner resolution.

Angelou divulges into the power that men have over her through recognizing that she frequently is unable to recognize manipulation because of her desire. In her poem, “They Went Home,” Angelou writes about her frequent encounters with married men, and how they always leave her in the end. These men had given her continuous praise in order to exploit Angelou’s need for comfort and validation (Ramsey 139-153). Throughout Angelou’s youthful life, she placed a dependency on men, and because love was one of her main goals, the men that she relied on used that power for their own benefit. Angelou has a weakness for men and sees “marriage as the answer to her own sense of dislocation,” and due to this, Angelou falls into a spiral of envisioning “a perfect future with various prospective husbands” (Neubauer 114-142). Angelou’s desire for unconditional romantic love makes her vulnerable to the lure of any man that pays her attention, and this allows her to fall into their trap of manipulation. This manipulation is evident throughout the entire poem as Angelou admits the things they said to her in order to rope her in. The first three words of the poem are “They went home” (1). Repeated at the end of the first and second stanza as well, this first phrase emphasizes the importance of it, as it is the title, and it sets up the repetition throughout the poem. These words fully showcase Angelou’s ultimate despair. The subject of “they” shows that this abandonment has happened with more than one man, and how she had failed to recognize the manipulation multiple times. The word “home,” also has a very heartbreaking connotation: she thought she would be the “home” for the men, and that they would make a home with her. But, these married men had their real home, and they left her for it. Angelou fell for the men despite their marital status because of her fantasy hope. Angelou also introduces the first list of praise as “never once in their lives, / had they known a girl like me” (2-3). This phrase is the most typical, general, and the one that makes her feel the most special. These men feed into her need for validation, and the praises allowed her to look past, or not even see, their flaws. Angelou ends this stanza with the refrain of “But… They went home” (4). The ellipse here showcases Angelou’s hope for the outcome of love, but then both the ellipse and possibility for hope are ended with the heartbreaking refrain. The second stanza begins with the continuation of the list of praises. Angelou writes that the men told her that her house was “licking clean,” and that “no word” that she spoke “was ever mean” (5-6). These rhyming praises highlight her qualities of being a good, obedient domestic partner. Angelou asserts here her availability and her desirability to be a spouse, as that is what she wants to be the most to them. She further adds that she “had an air of mystery” (7). This received compliment is another praise that Angelou values the highest, for she is attracted to that same quality the most in men (Ramsey 139-153). Angelou also does not connect these three praises with conjunctions, and instead just leaves them as fragments, which asserts that the compliments are list items that could go on and on. The stanza is ended with the same refrain, as even her air and obedience did not keep the men. In the final stanza, Angelou reveals that these men only stayed from one to three nights, yet she continues to go down this same path. None of these men had goals of love for her, for they were only truly after her body. The final line ends with “But…” (12). Angelou does not continue with the typical repetition, and she leaves her readers with the knowledge that she kept making the same mistakes over and over again, and soon the poem will end with “they went home.” The first two lines of each stanza are in iambic tetrameter, but the rest of the stanza loses the beat. Angelou’s famous poem lacks the typical poetic beauty, and is in prose in order to reflect the pitiful and depressing state of herself at that time (Hagen 118-136). She showcases her repeated mistakes through her weakness towards men. The men said what they had to say to get what they wanted, but she mistook that for true praise out of her own neediness and desperation. Throughout her life, Angelou was repeatedly hurt by experienced men who were able to see her vulnerability and exploit it before she was able to see it in herself. Desperation can lead to unseen reality. Her son even began to distrust her because of her constant search for love and security causing him to believe that Angelou will leave him in order to be cared for by another (Neubauer 114-142). Throughout this poem, Angelou confesses the power that men have over her and the pain it causes. Though, this poem also brings inner resolution as she is able to see what truly went wrong. Angelou admits that she did not see the manipulation until everything was over, for she reveals that love comes with a rose-colored filter, and only when that filter is lifted can the flaws be revealed.

Angelou expresses that great mystery of men makes them attractive and gives them power over her, yet she also critiques how these men use their power. In another poem titled, “Men,” Angelou reveals the power men had over her even from the very beginning of her life. In this poem, Angelou describes her young and innocent curiosity from the perspective of watching men from her window. She defines her wonder and desire for them. Then, one of these men take advantage of her innocent wonderings and sleeps with her. Angelou immediately regrets it, and shuts her window once again, yet she still reveals her continuous desire for the mystery of men, despite the exploitation she experienced. Angelou admits the power that the “narcissistic male is always the one most attractive to her and the most mysterious,” despite the fact that “he will always turn out to be the man most destructive to her” (Ramsey 139-153). The mystery that men have surrounding them forms a power over Angelou that is irresistible to her, and the men use this power to take advantage of her. Angelou begins her poem from her view “behind the curtains” (2). These curtains symbolize her innocent safety from the world, but eventually, her curiosity brings her out from behind the curtains and her innocence. She watches the men with curiosity, and compares, writing that they are “sharp as mustard” (4). The men are a comfort to her, like mustard, but their inner taste is bitter and sharp. Angelou then switches from her past tense of recollection to the present tense as she writes that “Men are always / Going somewhere” (5-6). This change to the present tense exemplifies how her curiosity about men still exist within her and has power over her. The mystery of the men walking along the street, going somewhere unknown where she is not, consumes her. This is also specified by Angelou placing the words, “Going somewhere” in their own line and apart from the sentence, as this magnifies the theme of her curiosity and the mystery of men. This power is translated into Angelou’s thrill of being noticed as she writes that the men knew she was there, and they would pause under her window. The mysterious man who pays attention to her has all the power, and she is “starving for them” (13). The men stopped in front of her window with utter confidence, with “shoulders high like the / Breasts of a young girl” (10-11). This simile defines Angelou’s motif of the difference between the confident man and the innocent girl. The capacity for power over this young girl is clear here with the comparison, between innocent sexuality, and experienced sexuality and manipulation. Angelou then follows this description with ending the stanza with the word, “Men” (14). Angelou sees men as her weakness, but also reveals that they know they have this power, and they use it at the expense of the used. Angelou then begins the second stanza with her first actual encounter with one of the mysterious men she saw. At the beginning of the encounter, she describes their touch as gentle, like holding “you in the / Palms of their hands” (15-16). This metaphor shrinks Angelou into the large and powerful hands of a man. They are huge and powerful to her, and Angelou even describes herself as a “raw egg” (17). She is innocent and fragile compared to the large, powerful hands of the men. She is easily broken, like the egg, as these men continuously draw her in due to their mystery, but break her in the end (Hagen 118-136). After this simile, Angelou’s sentence structure changes from long, multi-line sentences to 3-5 word sentences. These short sentences echo the change in pace and Angelou’s rise of panic and confusion in a flash back feeling. The descriptions are quick, and they lack true description due to her fear and shame. Her “defenselessness” mind is “hurt” and “shattered” in the “fear” as the “air disappears” (20-25). Her innocence is taken by the power of men. Even after the encounter, Angelou compares herself to a “head of a kitchen match,” which is still as small and fragile as an egg shell. Angelou locks down her body after the encounter, and “no keys exist” (31). But, even after this fearful and traumatic experience, Angelou returns to the window and the curtain, and the mystery returns; the men are still “going someplace,” and “knowing something” (35-36). These two phrases are their own lines, emphasizing the everlasting mystery. Angelou writes that this time she will just stand and watch, but then she ends the poem with “maybe” (39). This word is its own stanza. Despite the trauma and the fear that came from giving in to the mystery of men, her curiosity gets the best of her. Men have a mysterious psyche, but this is often only the quality of deception; yet, this quality is the one that lures women in the most (Ramsey 139-153). Men often know that they possess this power, and sometimes they use that power to take advantage of women. Angelou acknowledges this power of mystery and the power that is has over her, despite the pain the mysterious men caused her. The word “maybe” defines the entire poem, as it truly showcases the male power of their mystery, and it is irresistible to Angelou, and it keeps her in the continuous cycle of the wrong men.

Angelou finally confides in her readers that the true reason men have such power over her is the fantasy she centers around men. Men create this fairy-tale fantasy for Angelou, and she is unable to let go of men because of this belief that true love will complete her life. In one of her shortest, yet most emotional free-verse poems, “When You Come,” Angelou tells the story of an ex-lover returning to her, and her inability to resist his plea for forgiveness. This lover was clearly important to her, and when he came back to her, all of her fantasies that she worked so hard to forget come flooding back. Angelou admits her “overly romantic ability to place men on pedestals,” and to create this “rose-colored fantasy around them,” only later to discover her “cognitive error” (Ramsey 139-153). Angelou confuses the actual actions of men with what she wants them to be in her daydreams. Love tends to put on a filter, where the flaws are shielded only until the filter is released. Angelou puts herself into this cycle between fantasy love and heartbreak. In this poem, a man returns to Angelou who went through this cycle with her. She created a fantasy with this lover, he left her, and then she realized what was wrong with the relationship from the beginning. But, when he returns asking for forgiveness, Angelou breaks down, and the fantasy comes flooding back. Angelou’s entire poem can be interpreted as a sentence, as the first clause, “When you come,” is dependent and only completed with the last few words. Every line in between is “bonus” information, and this gives the poem a feeling as if this poem is truly her innermost thoughts––the words between the lines. These words between the lines, or clauses, begin with the word “unbidden” (1). This man came to her house, uninvited, and this shows Angelou’s original resistance. But then, she softens as she writes that this man came “beckoning me” (2). The ex-lover begins his manipulation, for he knows that Angelou’s weaknesses, and he exploits them. She has this desire for any man’s unconditional love, and this attaches her to men and a fantasy. “Beckoning” has a very gentle connotation, so Angelou can easily fall for it. This man is knowingly using her weakness, and is pulling her into the past fantasy where “memories lie” (4). Angelou then writes, “Offering me, as to a child, an attic” (5). “Offering” again has this gentle connotation, and Angelou even compares the gentleness of the situation as one would handle a child. This simile also compares Angelou to an innocent, unknowing child, which the man treats her as. He has this power over her, as he would a child. Furthermore, this “attic” is a metaphor for her memories that were stored away before. Yet, this man brings her back to the place she tucked away, and the fantasy comes flooding back because of the man’s momentary gentleness that is making her fall for him again. Despite all of the negative occurrences that happened when they were previously a couple, this man presents himself as gentle and changed, and Angelou cannot resist. In the next lines, readers can see Angelou beginning to unravel. The memories come back, but only the positive ones, where their time together had “days too few” (6). Angelou then dives into the attic metaphor, describing each memory as a “trinket,” “bauble,” or “trunk” (7,8,9). This attic full of boxes conveys that Angelou truly did keep all of these memories. Instead of throwing these boxes in the trash, she kept them in her attic; because of this, she can climb up the stairs and bring her fantasy back. An extra layer of inside the box on top of inside the attic reveals Angelou’s attempt to hide these fantasies, but the knowing that still kept them. At the very end of the poem, Angelou completes the dependent clause that began in the first line with, “I cry” (10). This line is absolutely heartbreaking, for the readers finally know that Angelou broke and could not help but let this man, and the fantasy that comes with him, back in. She wants to linger in the past and believe in the fairy tale romance. Her “fantasy life recreates their personalities” (Hagen 118-136). The ultimate power men have over her is the fantasy that lingers around every man she meets due to her desire for love. This fantasy causes her to lose sight of reality, and the men take advantage of this knowledge of the power they can have over her. The power of a fantasy can be overwhelming, so these fantasies always reappear, despite the pain that they had caused in the first place.

Ever since Angelou’s first trauma with a man, poetry has given her a way to express herself and work through her innermost emotions. Through her raw honesty, Maya Angelou is able to connect with her readers by admitting the weaknesses and flaws that many have, yet fear to reveal. She gives so many people a voice, and for those who still can’t speak up, she is their voice. The desire for love has deep power, and this struggle is clearly outlined in Angelou’s poetry. But, from these experiences, the love poems continue, as Angelou never let these experiences defeat her. Pain has ravaged Angelou, but from these experiences came her eventual self acceptance and realization that loving oneself is the first step to truly achieving love. Maya Angelou’s poetry is raw, honest, and truly captures the essence of human struggle, but also the voyage leading into eventual self-acceptance. She is truly, a phenomenal woman.

Works Cited

Angelou, Maya. “Maya Angelou Poems.” Poetryverse, Poetryverse, www.poetryverse.com/english-poets/maya-angelou-poems/phenomenal-woman.

Hagen, Lyman B. "Poetry: Something About Everything." Poetry Criticism, edited by Ellen McGeagh, vol. 32, Gale, 2001. Literature Resource Center, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/H1420033960/LitRC?u=paci91811&sid=LitRC&xid=fc511937. Accessed 29 Oct. 2019. Originally published in Heart of a Woman, Mind of a Writer, and Soul of a Poet: A Critical Analysis of the Writings of Maya Angelou, University Press of America, Inc., 1997, pp. 118-136.

Neubauer, Carol E. "Maya Angelou: Self and a Song of Freedom in the Southern Tradition." Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by James P. Draper and Jennifer Allison Brostrom, vol. 77, Gale, 1993. Literature Resource Center, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/H1100000054/LitRC?u=paci91811&sid=LitRC&xid=b51f8fed. Accessed 3 Nov. 2019. Originally published in Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, edited by Tonette Bond Inge, The University of Alabama Press, 1990, pp. 114-142.

Ramsey, Priscilla R. "Transcendence: The Poetry of Maya Angelou." Poetry Criticism, edited by Ellen McGeagh, vol. 32, Gale, 2001. Literature Resource Center, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/H1420033956/LitRC?u=paci91811&sid=LitRC&xid=8115b2c8. Accessed 28 Oct. 2019. Originally published in Current Bibliography on African Affairs, vol. 17, no. 2, 1984, pp. 139-153.

Taylor, Helen. "‘A Black Ocean, Leaping and Wide’: The Ambition of Maya Angelou." Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Lawrence J. Trudeau, vol. 389, Gale, 2016. Literature Resource Center, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/H1100120631/LitRC?u=paci91811&sid=LitRC&xid=0f0bcf29. Accessed 28 Oct. 2019. Originally published in Circling Dixie, Rutgers UP, 2001, pp. 163-196.

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