Action and Identity: A Critical Analysis of “Woman Work” by Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was an acclaimed writer and civil rights activist who reached a broad audience through her works. While she is perhaps best known for her autobiographical prose, her poetry has changed the landscape of feminist writing, bringing in a new idea of the celebration of self-definition and selfhood as an integral part of the attainment of liberation and agency.

Her poem Woman Work delineates the life of a woman as being akin to that of a slave. While idea is latent in most of the poem, her conception becomes quite overt with the mention of picking cotton. Part of the poem reads like a list with a breathless pace, an indication of the tedious life of a woman. The rhyme scheme is not regular, but exists in part of the poem to further accelerate the rhythm of the poem. This pace of the poem is representative of the life of a woman, with the woman having no time to stop; the list of her works seems to go on and on. In the following lines, this idea is especially prominent.

I’ve got the children to tendThe clothes to mendThe floor to mopThe food to shopThen the chicken to fryThe baby to dryI got company to feedThe garden to weedI’ve got shirts to pressThe tots to dressThe can to be cutI gotta clean up this hutThen see about the sickAnd the cotton to pick.

In these lines, the poet delineates the life of a woman. This part of the poem makes it seem like someone is reading it breathlessly. The works of the woman range from her domestic duties, like tending to children and shopping for food, as well as her chores as a slave, like picking cotton. This shows the kind of life that women, specially black women, were forced to lead as they were condemned to live a life in the margins.

The idea of double colonization of the third world woman comes to mind when the reader sees the part about picking cotton. African women were discriminated against on the basis of race as well as gender. They were hence pushed to the very fringes of society, stripped of any voice or agency that the “Others” from different demographics might have.

The pace of the poem then slows down in the next stanza, and a sense of relief is communicated in the following lines:

Shine on me, sunshineRain on me, rainFall softly, dewdropsAnd cool my brow again.

Storm, blow me from hereWith your fiercest windLet me float across the sky’Til I can rest again.Fall gently, snowflakesCover me with whiteCold icy kisses andLet me rest tonight.Sun, rain, curving skyMountain, oceans, leaf and stoneStar shine, moon glowYou’re all that I can call my own.

The speaker finally seems to find some rest. What is interesting is that it seems like nature is her only escape. Where humankind has doomed her into a life of subservience, nature gives her a catharsis. One of the very significant themes that surfaces in this part of the poem is that of the binary of nature and humankind. Nature doesn’t discriminate and provides the only solace the speaker can seem to find.

From this poem, quite a few inferences can be made. It is very clear from the lines of the first stanza that the poet wishes to draw a parellel between the life of a woman and that of a slave. both having been marginalized in terms of suffering. So often do we forget that there is an intersection between gender-based and racial prejudice. This poet attempts to expose the reality of living a life when one is marginalized both because of gender as well as race. This woman seems to work at a breathless pace and seems to find no escape from domestic drudgery. She is bound by the dogmas of patriarchy. There is no life for her outside of the domestic life.

However, for a woman like the speaker of the poem, there is a bleak sense of escape in nature. She is able to find some sort of solace and hence, after she has completed her work, she escapes her domestic boundaries into nature.

Thus, the poet does not limit herself to gynocentric concerns and finds the fine line between different types of prejudice. This can be taken as a fierce condemnation of prejudice of every stripe. She delineates the harsh reality of living as the Other, and her critique of the social hierarchy that perpetuates such discrimination and inevitable suffering is evoked in this poem.

Maya Angelou and the Poetry of Uplift in “Still I Rise”

Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” can be understood as the narrative of a woman who was discarded and hampered by the world and its cruel definition of beauty and success. You can discern the story of a young girl who once felt ashamed to appear in the light, and a tale of the same young lady transforming into a woman who has pride in the person she is, inside and out. Angelou seems to portray a similar theme as this powerful woman’s. She wrote a poem that insists on the ability of all human kind being able to ‘rise’ from all circumstance. Through her use of metaphoric phrases, her choice of vivid vocabulary, and her beautiful similes, Maya Angelou crafts a poem filled with a message of strength and endurance.

An American poet of remarkable optimism, Maya Angelou can be described as a writer who understands the true usage of contradicting and powerful metaphors. In “Still I Rise,” there are abundant metaphorical phrases that will keep you extremely attentive when reading them. One circumstance of such a metaphor is through her description of dirt and dust. She begins by saying “You may tread me in the very dirt” (line 3) however she finishes the sentence saying “But still like dust, I’ll rise”. In these two lines, she is able to address the meaning of treading someone in the dirt or in simpler terms, belittling someone and treating them as if they are minute. She is also able to show us that something as inconsistent as ‘dust’ can rise even if it is seen as incapable. Maya also decides to use violence as a metaphor, to show her audience that there is cruelty which is deeper than physical pain. An example of this could be when she mentions that “You may shoot me with your words” (21). This powerful line is able to show us that in every circumstance where we feel like the victim whether through speech, emotional abuse, or physical abuse, it is still an act of inflicting hurt and it should be taken with an act of perseverance. Maya reveals to us that not all atrocities are clear cut and emphasized for us to understand, but no matter how big or small these\ things seem and no matter who we are we still have the ability to rise.

Certain words evoke multiple emotions for people who read them. Maya Angelou uses a wide range of vocabulary that creates a great deal of imagery and controversy in the way we view the poem. She shows us her approach to how self confidence should be expressed, using the word “sexiness” to ask the question “Does my sexiness upset you?” (25). This question is written in a way that is meant to show that we should not be ashamed of who we are and how we look which is an apparent explanation of the main theme of the poem. Another example of a word which excites our reader brains is the word slave. This is a word which is controversial in a number of countries and can even be related to primarily in the United States. She uses the word by saying “I am the dream and the hope of the slave” (40). This statement is added onto the poem for us to be able to understand that she has no choice but to rise because of the people who fought for her chance to be able to pursue her dreams. One last word that was used ten times in the poem was rise. Since this particular word is even in the title we as the readers can assume that it is important and relevant to the writer that we understand that we can rise. Such a diverse lexicon helps us to think about the meaning behind the written identity of her poem.

Comparisons are an important component of Maya Angelou’s poetic repertoire, and are especially evident in the number of similes that Angelou used as she wrote “Still I Rise.” One instance of this is when she compares walking to having oil wells. She says “”Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells pumping in my living room” (7-8). Although she knows that she does not have much, she has her confidence and pride and carries herself with that because she knows that she can rise. Another example of a simile is she compares the moon and suns to herself and everyone else who is meant to rise. While keeping a clear image in our minds, she says “Just like moons and like suns, with the certainty of tides, Just like hopes springing high, Still I’ll rise” (9-12). Nature, particularly the different types she mentions in this stanza show an example of common things that were created have the automatic ability to rise, this should give us the realization that rising is actually a simple task.

Though falling down and getting back up is a hard task to handle, Angelou shows us that with the right amount of self assurance we can do anything and we can rise from any situation. She gives us a proper lesson on what it means to control how we live our lives, either constantly complaining of our struggles or acknowledging them and choosing to rise above them. Maya Angelou wrote a poem filled with a message of strength and endurance through her use of metaphoric phrases, her choice of vivid vocabulary, and her beautiful similes.

A Feminist study of Maya Angelou’s poem, “Men”

“On the day when it will be possible for woman to love not in her weakness but in her strength, not to escape herself but to find herself, not to abase herself but to assert herself–on that day love will become for her, as for man, a source of life and not of mortal danger.” Simone de Beauvoir

Maya Angelou’s poem, “Men” is an exceptional example of power V/S powerlessness and it skilfully takes us into the mindset of a woman who has doubtlessly been a victim of the male dominating society. The poem communicates to us very conveniently, the intricate complication of our vulnerable need for men as well as the stark divergence in our characters. The subject matter and her dealing with it confirm the height of the maturity of the poet and her remarkable ability to portray her body’s thoughts as well as her mind’s working. She has tried to reveal the unfeeling, bitter and ruthless nature of men through a hidden contract which portrays the delicacy, innocence and patience of women. The “non-significant other” of the first stanza seems to be fully exposed to the bitterness of life by the end of the poem.

Keeping in mind Lacan’s concept that the “entry into the Symbolic Order, the structure of language, is different for boys and girls” and also focusing on the fact that the Post structuralist feminist theory throws light on “the category or position ‘woman’ as part of a binary opposition, ‘man/woman’, in which ‘man’ is the favoured term”, we can take a look at the poem and form a very vivid idea about it. We also have to remember that the goal of the feminists is to deconstruct this ‘man/woman’ binary, and all the other binaries that strengthen and emphasize it, such as ‘masculine/feminine, good/evil, light/dark, positive/negative, culture/nature’ etc. The ‘phallogocentric culture’ in which we dwell values the left-side terms more while considering the right-side terms as ‘other’ or undesirable.

The experiences of women and their portrayal of them differ enormously from those of men’s. The feminists believed that it was important to develop a uniquely female consciousness based on the experience of women rather than stressing upon the conventional “male theories of reading, writing and critiquing.” Known as “gynocriticism”, (a term coined by the feminist scholar Elaine Showalter), this “female model of literary analysis” provides four directions for the evaluation of a certain text which we would be applying to the poem.

The first direction leads us to the “images of the female body” in the poem. According to Bresslor, female writers use “anatomical imagery” to present their complex themes. For example, breasts have always been a subject of some controversy in feminism, being our ‘foremost’ sexual charm, so to speak. It’s a dilemma for feminism: on the one hand, breasts are something that declares us to be women; but on the other hand, men like breasts so therefore they are dirty and wicked. Image of “breasts” here suggests the innocence and vulnerability of young girls to the probable and expected harms of the society (obviously, through the exploitation by the dominating sex). We do find an inkling here of some sort of conceited satisfaction of the possession of the breasts when Maya is comparing the “high” shoulders of men with “the breasts of a young girl.”

The Second direction, which is indeed very interesting for the examination of this poem, leads us to the kind of “language” being used by Maya. The selection of words for men and woman differ strongly and we can clearly observe that harsh and arrogant vocabulary is used for men while women are dealt with in a very fragile and pious way. Although we are told that it is the woman spying over men from “behind the curtains”, watching them as they walk up and down the street, but we do get vibes that the real “spy” is the man who would ultimately grab hold of the “defenceless” woman, and finally “shatter” her apart. The words like “young men sharp as mustard” with shoulders “high” suggest the power of the male, highlighting and supporting the western culture’s assumption that “ males are superior to females and therefore are better thinkers, more rational, more serious and more reflective than women.” The fragility of the tender sex is further enhanced by the dramatic illustration of the handling of women by men. The similes and comparisons as well as the vocabulary used clearly confirm the sex of the poet to be female. We can trace a number of images that refer to the kitchen and kitchen-ware. Phrases like “sharp as mustard”, “starving for them”, “last raw egg” and “head of a kitchen match” are obvious examples of vocabulary used by women. It is not that such vocabulary cannot be used by men, but the way it is used unconsciously here in this poem is undoubtedly an effort of a woman.

The third and the most significant direction suggested by gynocriticism is to evaluate the “female psyche” and its connection to the writing process. We need to observe some of the concepts inculcated in the minds of women about the men to trace and evaluate the hidden female psyche behind this poem. Men are feared by women everywhere. They are strong, powerful and are laden with an ability to exploit women anytime. They treat women in a ruthless manner, are deceitful and vile towards them and lack loyalty in relations. The poem refers to all these concepts in a captivating way.

It seems quite obvious that she had some traumatic and unforgettable experience with men or a man. The only power she seems to possess over men is the power of standing behind the “curtain” which, obviously, isn’t much at all. Curtain, here, could be symbolic of various things including virginity, distance, oblivion and innocence. The need of a man in a woman’s life is obvious and the poet is aware of it as she knows she is “starving” for him, but the ultimate fear keeps her behind the “curtain” as she has some vague knowledge of the deceitful nature of man as well. She knows that as long as she is behind the curtain, she is comparatively safe from the tyrannical handling of the man. The more distant she is from the “centre” man , she has more chances to be “slippery”, “fluid”, “less fixed” and “playful.” Another image that “Men are always going somewhere” refers to the universal characteristic of males that they are never satisfied with one thing. No matter what they possess, they are always on the hunt for more. After they fully utilize (read exploit) the body of these “mindless entities”, they conveniently move ahead, leaving the “shattered” existences behind with the “slammed shut” bodies devoid of any keys.

Culture and society’s influence on the woman’s understanding of herself and her surroundings is the fourth direction we have to look at according to the gynocriticism. The mores and traditions of the society are so overwhelming specifically for the women that they have to mold their lives according to the customs set by the male rulers. In this poem, we see that the poet has traced the gradual development of the woman’s mind in an excellent way. The Curtain, seen through the eyes of culture, could also refer to the naivety and simplicity of the young girl of the poem. The drawing of the “window” full upon the “mind” could possibly hint to the revelation on the mind of the woman about the true reality of the man and society at large. After experiencing her worst experience, the young girl now is fully exposed to the bitter reality of life. By the end of the poem, she tries to assure the audience that, now that she is aware of the truth and the harshness of life, she would avoid any encounter with these men. “But this time”, she says, “I will simply stand and watch.” But this is not so, as we are given a hint of the vulnerability of the woman through the last word. She isn’t sure she would be able to keep herself away from men. The last “May be” clearly states that neither is she sure of being safe from the mistreatment of the men in future nor can she strictly keep herself behind the curtain anymore.