Poem of the Day: Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman”

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
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.
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.   
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,   
That’s me.
I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,   
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.   
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.   
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.   
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Men themselves have wondered   
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
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
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.   
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.   
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
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.   
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

(Malika also suggests embedding this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VeFfhH83_RE) of Angelou reading this poem with her response essay.)

“Phenomenal Woman” is a poem by the amazing Maya Angelou. The poem features a proclamation of love from the speaker, but the love is for herself. The poem starts off making sure that the reader knows this is not a poem that knocks the beauty of other women with the collectively “pretty women.” Each stanza of the poem, except the third, starts off with an observation from the speaker, whether it be recognizing that her beauty is not conventional to society in the first stanza or the effect she has on men in the second stanza. The poem separates the words “I say” to make the reader pay attention and listen, as the speaker makes her proclamations.
Most of the proclamations are about her physical appearance. Lines like “the sun of my smile” and “it’s the fire in my eyes” let the reader know that the beauty she finds in herself is all encompassing and irrepressible, and that she is phenomenal no matter who recognizes or doesn’t recognize it.
This poem has always been one of my favorites. Growing up, I had a hard time finding a ton of images of people who looked like me in media, whether it be books, movies, or magazines. I had an especially hard time finding those images portrayed as being beautiful. So when I did come across representation like that, I clung to it. This poem was no different. The speaker doesn’t apologize for finding herself beautiful. She doesn’t care that she’s not conventionally “cute” or that she doesn’t fit a certain size or that men don’t really know what they see in her. All that matters is that she finds herself to be phenomenal. And with the ending lines of “Phenomenal woman, that’s me,” the use of “me” helps the reader do the same for themselves.

                                                                                                         — Malika Searcy
Malika is a junior at GW, majoring in journalism and mass communications. Her middle name is Maya, which her grandma chose because of Maya Angelou. Malika thinks that’s pretty cool.

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