A Poem That Sucks: "Phenomenal Woman" by Maya Angelou

"Phenomenal Woman" by Maya Angelou

The mini-bio on her website -- likely written by Angelou -- says it all:

Dr. Maya Angelou is a remarkable Renaissance woman who is hailed as one of the great voices of contemporary literature.  As a poet, educator, historian, best-selling author, actress, playwright, civil-rights  activist, producer and director, she continues to travel the world, spreading her legendary wisdom.  Within the rhythm of her poetry and elegance of her prose lies Angelou's unique power to help readers of every orientation span the lines of race and Angelou captivates audiences through the vigor and sheer beauty of her words and lyrics.
If you have to tell someone that you are awesome, you are not awesome by default, and very likely, you suck. It doesn't help if your posturing is itself cliched and immobile: "legendary wisdom," "sheer beauty." I haven't heard about something so great since someone told me about the Bible. Actually reading it blew up that idea, and the same goes for when I read "Phenomenal Woman."

I had two students present on the "Phenomenal Woman" poem. They asked to cover it even though it was not in our course anthology (for reasons adumbrated below). For the life of me, I could not help myself from revealing the problems of the poem. I want to offer a short critique of the poem for the record. Obviously I did not go on about this poem in this fashion.

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.

Like almost all truly horrid poetry, this poem is about "me, me, me." This is taken to new heights with supposed, but never explained, "secret." The three "w" words sit together and should create some kind of alliteration, but instead establish the poetic style of Angelou: clunkiness and a lack of ideas.

The first line also draws an unfair, judgmental separation between "pretty women" and "me," or the not-pretty woman, presupposing a knowledge somehow forbidden to the "pretty women." Let's take that logic one more step. If looks can determine what one person can know -- in the essentialist thinking -- and what another cannot know, then it is also fair to assume that there is knowledge forbidden across other lines: gender, class, ethnicity, nationality, and so on. This is not that much different from the assumption that all Muslim people are at war with "America" and "freedom," so it's okay to torture "them" but not "us."

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

One "I" per line -- a hideous formula. The poem gradually creates a "persona" that is not a persona at all. It's an "I" that makes pulp fiction look like Hemingway. Note the seventh-grade level rhyme of "size" and "lies."

Okay, the speaker is talking to these "pretty women" about what "they" don't know. The speaker is arrogant at this point.

I say,
It's in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.

Now we are learning more about "the secret," which might be a special confidence for the not-pretty. We have an "I" line followed by four lines of cliched phrases that are not poetic. The lines go against the very idea of poetry -- that language might be made more complex, so that we could find the deeper, ulterior meanings -- the magic -- of what lies in our minds' vocabularies. The "span of my hips," "stride of my step," and "curl of my lips" are phrases that the writer supposes to have some kind of direct, anti-metaphorical meaning.

Note the terrible rhyme from "hips" to "lips." Note how five lines in a row use a variation of "I." The definite article -- "the" -- annoyingly keeps appearing. Each of the eight words placed together in this sequence -- each! -- have one syllable and neither create a stylistic euphony nor cacophony. "Reach/arms/span/hips/stride/step/curl/lips": there is no concept at work here. The writer would have us do away with complexity and interpretation, and in their place say, "I mean what I say! It's self-evident!" like some prodigal president allergic to self-reflection. The beauty of art is that it allows us a semi-direct view of the artist. The ugliness of "Phenomenal Woman" is the fact that this poem allows us to peer into the empty space that is "Maya Angelou's" content-free, simplistic, cliche-ridden empty noggin.

I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

Good, we have four lines, two "I" variations, and one word used repetitively. Four lines, eight words. This poem was not crafted -- it was spat.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,

This speaker has something wrong with her self-involvement! But moving on, who is this new "you" that appears? Is it the "pretty women" the speaker was lecturing? No, the "as you please" phrase is thrown in there out of nowhere, without a "you" it refers to.

And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.

"To a man" is vague here. Does it mean "each man" or "to a man," as in, "speak to a man"? What is the logic of the line break between "...stand or / fall down"? There is none. In fact, the poem has no style or operative understanding of the basic rudiments of poetry, among them, assonance/dissonance, line breaks, speaker, and auditor/addressee. Who is speaking to whom? And why? What is the point? The point, of course, is that the speaker is asserting her confidence, but "overcompensating," as one of my astute students said.

Then, like in a really bad movie, an idea comes from out of nowhere: Why do the men turn into bees?! Oh, because the speaker of the poem is like a queen bee. Is this some kind of joke? Is this a sarcastic poem written in jest? Were I a woman, I hope I would not assert myself to be a queen bee ruling over men-bees while lecturing an unknown number of "pretty women."

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.

Okay, we have another "4X4" section. The words do not go together either stylistically or conceptually: "fire, eyes, flash, teeth, swing, waist, joy, feet," We have a self-reference in each line. "Flash of my teeth"? Are we talking about a tiger or a queen bee? Flashing teeth is a hostile act, and "fire in my eyes" is also vaguely aggressive. These images are at odds with the happy-go-lucky "swing" and "joy" we find later.

I try to get students to think, "What's going on here in the text?" Literally, the speaker is telling a group of pretty women how awesome she is and how much power she has over men.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can't touch
My inner mystery.

Oh, now the speaker is not only telling people about her awesome body parts, she's become omniscient by viewing the thoughts of men when they look at her. Nice "much/touch" rhyme -- the kind of rhyme a first-grade student would come up with when first having been introduced to the idea of rhyming.

Now, the men "can't touch" the speaker's "inner mystery." It's not a mystery if you have to tell someone, "Hey, I've got a mystery here!" At this point in the poem, I am starting to wonder if the "pretty women" are even there. Is this a babbling vagrant talking to herself, telling herself tall tales for some ephemeral confidence? In any event, the only cogent thinking the speaker has is some variation of "Hey, folks, I'm awesome, look at me."

When I try to show them
They say they still can't see.
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.
I'm a woman

Here we're seven for eight with "I" variations -- a high batting average. Apparently the speaker's lecture is failing: "they still can't see." We have another 4X4 of clunky words, but this time we get a "ride of my breasts." Wait, I'm not even sure I want to draw out the possible meanings of this phrase. Sounds pornographic, even. And "The grace of my style" puts the other boasts away; this is arrogance unbound.

Now you understand
Just why my head's not bowed.
I don't shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.

Congratulations! We've almost reached the end of the poem, and finally we have an actual line that has neither an "I" reference or a "you" reference (to the "pretty women" audience). But grammatically it's still there; the "have" assumes an "I" but merely cuts it out.

But Houston, we have a problem: the poem has already showed the speaker "shout[ing]" and "jump[ing] about." And she has definitely "talk[ed] real loud." In fact, if the poem is about anything, it's about the pathetic-ness of boasting as a way of compensating for a personal insecurity. The poem is a textbook example of "telling" instead of "showing." There is not one piece of evidence the speaker has offered that can be confirmed by an objective observer. Each and every description is mortally subject to human beings' inability to perceive themselves. "Phenomenal Woman" depicts the unreliable narrator par excellence.

When you see me passing

God, I hope I don't.

It ought to make you proud.

It won't.

I say,

You don't say?! I haven't heard enough from you.

It's in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,

This is the worst 4X4 listing yet. And that makes three 4X4's, each more annoying than the next.

'Cause I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

If read as the ultimate poem of sentimentality, cliche, and pap, I can read this poem. If it's a sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek poem about the insecurities of the would-be feminists, I can read this poem. If it's a psychological case study of self-misperception, delusions of grandeur, and overcompensation, I can read this poem. But I cannot and will not read this poem as being about "a self-confident woman."

"Phenomenal Woman" might be the worst well-known poem out there; it's worse than tripe, with a fatal ignorance of its arrogance posing as confidence. The wordplay is leaden. The image of "pretty women" listening to the "phenomenal woman's" first-person account is at once sad and dimwitted. In the end, the poem's vision is one of a brutalization of language -- that words can be reduced, with enough faux-confidence, into discrete, self-contained meanings. And the speaker would also browbeat those ignoramuses unfortunate enough to have been born "pretty." Does the speaker bring them any knowledge? No. The poem is about a self-assertion of me -- a brutal vision of remaking the world in one's own image, of retrofitting our meek self-perception into a queen bee's dictatorship of both worker-bees and audience.

This is a delusion of grandeur -- a human existence sans unsureness, insecurity, and subtlety. "Phenomenal Woman" declares war on feeling second-best, but that enemy is the "I" of the poem's speaker. One of three things will occur: the war on insecurity will go on indefinitely, with "pretty women" audiences sacrificed unrelentingly; a sad and broken speaker will admit defeat and give in to the objective reality of her insecurities, saving us from her boastings; or she will commit hara-kiri and die an honorable death, finally realizing that the lack of confidence is not on the outside, it is on the inside, but for this titanically insecure, boasting speaker, the only solution to this permanent psychological defect is death.

Maya Angelou's poem "Phenomenal Woman" is a poem that sucks of the highest order, redefining suckness, eviscerating compassion, brutalizing interpretation, and torturing language in a closed figure-eight of infinity that cannot be understood by human beings -- a truly supernatural suckness. Its speaker is a lunatic and a danger to society at large. May this poem be put out of its misery.

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