STYLISTIC ANALYSIS OF MAYA ANGELOU’S POEM “STILL I RISE”, Sahar Hamid

ABSTRACT

This paper focuses on analyzing Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” as a purely feminist piece of writing, substantiating the claim through referring to its stylistic features. The particular feminist referential point for this research is Helene Cixous’s “The Laugh of Medusa”, an essay with which many parallels can be drawn with respect to Angelou’s poetry. The stylistic categories through which the poem is filtered in this study include lexical, grammatical, morphological, phonological, and different figures of speech. Moreover, it also discusses the various kinds of deviation induced within the poem and administers if the poem exhibits a certain level of coherence and cohesion or not. All the above mentioned stylistic categories are employed to devise a succinct report which states that a) “Still I Rise” stylistically supports and furthers the contextual and semantic themes within the poem and b) knowledge of stylistics and stylistic analysis itself is indispensable to understanding and decoding of a literary text.

 

“STILL I RISE”

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT

It would not be wrong to call Angelou a woman with extraordinary qualities in terms of her outlook towards life; she was versatility personified. Not limited to being a writer alone, she successfully charmed her readers and audience through the diverse passions which she lived and exhibited throughout her life. Considering that she was the first female black Hollywood director, it seems almost impossible to fathom that Angelou could have been raped by someone close in the family at a tender age of seven. Following this horrendous event, soon after she became mute, but later gained her confidence back with the guidance of Mrs. Flowers who got her to speak again, and to whom Angelou fans will forever remain indebted.

Not bound by conventional roles set by the society, Angelou went on to become the first female black street car conductor in San Francisco, not to mention working as a mechanic, club dancer and cook as some of the other occupations which made sure money made its way home for her. A winner of several revered national and international awards and a recipient of fifty honorary degrees, concern for the blacks and especially for the females (although most profoundly explored) is not the only concern for her; as Carol E. Neubauer writes in Southern Women Writers: The New Generation that “Angelou had become recognized not only as a spokesperson for blacks and women, but also for all people who are committed to raising the moral standards of living in the United States”, hence addressing a universal audience rather than merely communal. She was also for a long time associated with the Harlem Writer’s Guild where in an inspirational moment, listening to Martin Luther King, she perhaps decided to become an active participant the civil rights struggle.

Angelou’s works, mostly autobiographical in nature, focus on issues of race, sexuality and violence. Being a writer with a very keen insight, she not only makes use of her social observations but also brings in her past experiences and autobiographical details to validate her claims regarding marginalization faced by African females in America, as Holst notices in Christian Century, “the poignant beauty of Angelou’s writing enhances rather than masks the candor with which she addresses the racial crisis through which America was passing”. However, in doing so, she advocates the potential that women possess, depicting black as beautiful and diverse, strengthening women and educating them to embody a strong spirit.

In the poem under consideration, “Still I Rise” also, she explores the atrocities subjected at women of race, as well as women in general, as well as the process of painful anguish which results in women coming out ultimately as stronger individuals. She presents the idea of marginalization and subjugation leading to a regrowth and ultimately resulting in healthy survival, where women aren’t just equals, but superior to men. Another aspect which demands critical attention is her excessive use of personal pronouns in the poem which redirects us to the long-held African tradition of slave songs and work songs, where personal responses came together as the collective unconscious of the millions of slaves and their families who suffered the oppression during years to slavery. In her own words, during a conversation with George Plimpton, she said, “Once I got into it I realized I was following a tradition established by Frederick Douglass—the slave narrative—speaking in the first-person singular talking about the first-person plural, always saying I meaning ‘we.’

It is both surprising and interesting to notice how two female writers, one occupied with the field of theorizing, the other with writing, can exhibit such similarities in their works. Helene Cixous and Angelou are two such women. Angelou’s poetry is an embodiment of everything that Helene Cixous in her article “The Laugh of the Medusa” aims for women to achieve, thus creating a strong parallel between the two. Both women write in a similar style – over enthusiastically, explicitly and boldly, making use of hyperbolic and symbolic language. As mentioned earlier, this paper then deals with decoding the ‘style’ in Angelou’s “Still I Rise” through different stylistic categories, simultaneously drawing parallels with Cixous’s essay as a referential point and to facilitate better understanding.

 

ANALYSIS

This paper follows the plan of a) identifying within the poem the different categories which are used for the analysis and b) using the identified features to comment on how they complement and further the thematic concerns of the poem. This shall be done by assessing the following categories/levels of stylistic analysis:

  • Lexical
  • Semantic
  • Grammatical
  • Morphological
  • Figures of Speech
  • Phonological Pattern

Lexical

Language and Vocabulary

capture

1

It is noticeable from the above tables that Angelou has mostly used words from simple vocabulary, in order to facilitate reading not just for a particular class which is high-bred and has knowledge of refined English, but rather for all classes in the social hierarchy, to people of all ages. By making her poetry accessible to all people, the poetess is herself being approachable; she’s communicating one-on-one, rather than being a distanced poet. Even the words which are apparently complex (in terms of their structure), are words which are still common among the masses and are used for day to day communication purposes. The terms “’cause” and “diggin’” can be argued over, as to whether they are employed to maintain the meter of the poem, or if they had a special motive behind their usage. However, it is observed that among the African community in America, there was a trend of eating up certain syllables of a word because English was a new language for them. Later, this certain style got formulated into the dialect used by Afro-Americans, and hence the poet’s tendency to use them in her poem. Moreover, Angelou’s use of descriptive, idiomatic and evaluative language lends richness to her poem, heightening the effect of the subject under consideration.

Morphological

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In light of the various morphemes used within the poem, certain assumptions can be deduced. A number of free and bound morphemes are used. The free morphemes in the poem are telling of which action is being performed and where is it being performed; for instance dance, offend, shoot, cut etc. Bound morphemes with an addition fixed with a root for example ‘s’, ‘ed’, ‘es’, ‘ing’, etc. usually inform of the plurality of nouns, or the tense and time of action. Since Angelou has mostly used morphemes which make up the present, present-continuous, and future tenses in the poem’s narrative, it shows that she as a woman is not stuck in the past, nor is she of resentful of the treatment she has been inflicted with in the past. She is focused like a falcon, only looking ahead, alert and vigilant, and uses her present circumstances to her best use to make her future better. Use of suffixes in the poem says much about the poetess’ creative inclination to endow her verses with adjectives and adverbial words. It also stresses the descriptions and thematic details in the poem.

Semantic Field

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Stylistically analyzing the poem via the semantic field is one of the most significant steps in the analysis of “Still I Rise”. This is so because of the overpowering zeal and choice of words which impart meaning and uplift the poem’s thematic concerns. As discussed earlier, the central idea of the poem rests on countering the double marginalization, and an attempt to regain the previously humiliated self through proudly regaining the body. Thus the semantic field can roughly be divided into three categories i.e. a) the poem being a slave narrative b) the poem portrays Angelou as a revolutionary, a fiery-spirited, strong, independent woman and c) the poem as a feminist piece of writing, by a woman, to, and for women.

The words pertaining to giving meaning to the poem as a slave narrative are listed in the first column in the table above. They include words like Broken, Bowed head, Lowered eyes, Teardrops, Weakened, Soulful cries, Shoot, Cut, Kill and Past rooted in pain, which refer back to the atrocities subjected upon the African race which was transported via The Middle Passage. Moreover, they are also referring to women who have been subjected to violence and abuse by men in the past. The words ‘gold mines’ and ‘oil wells’ ironically suggest the treasures which the White man went on the lookout for, in the name of civilization and came back with millions of human beings as slaves. Angelou challenges the barbaric, looting attitude of the white ‘masters’ when she tells them, well, you don’t have access to us as humans now, but sure I’ve got oil wells and gold mines and diamonds in my possession. However, it is in her boldness and courage that no man would dare cross her.

The second field she refers to is the uprising of women against the prevalent phallocentric tradition. The kindling of a revolutionary spirit within women and giving them enough self-confidence to see themselves as ‘equal’ rather than like an ‘other’ is what Angelou does as an educator. Cixous also talks about the pervasive phallocentric tradition in writing, describing it as the locus from where the repression of women is perpetuated. It limits possibilities for women, demeaning them, forcing them to cringe under their own weight, feel horrified of their own selves. Maya Angelou describes this repression and the possibility of subversion in her poem. She admits that rising above these established ideas is difficult but she encourages women to speak and write so that they may obtain liberation. As a result, their writing becomes subversive, insurgent and revolutionary, so much that it is explosive like a volcano. Angelou uses her poem as an outlet for the frustration building up inside her; she portrays how women will continue to rise against all odds. Thus the female writing becomes an anti-logos weapon by using it to break the codes that negate her.

The third way of considering the poem’s semantic interpretation is looking at it through a feminist lens. Cixous in her essay insists that women must raise their voice against the conventional marginalization and claim their identities. She says that they must do this by ‘writing the self in the text’ by ‘writing the body’. The taking up of the challenge of writing currently governed by the phallus, must be done through a rediscovery of the female body. Maya Angelou adopts the idea in her poem and proudly talks of her bodily features and gestures, claiming her ‘unique empire’; she describes her gait and her laughter as extremely attractive features. Similarly she proudly owns her sexuality, equating the site between her legs as ornamented with jewels like “diamonds”. Similarly the “welling and swelling” as a tide does, is a direct reference to the sexual action and to female orgasm, which for Angelou isn’t a guilty act; rather, it is something to proudly claim.

Parts of Speech

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Apart from identifying the nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, what is extremely noteworthy in “Still I Rise” is the excessive use of personal and possessive pronouns. First person narration is used which signifies Angelou’s attempt at depicting herself as being extremely self-important. She does not require others to complement her being, or to complete her. She is entire and fulfilled in her own skin and does not ask of the conventional male attention or help to get through her days. The reflexive pronoun ‘that’ is also used twice in the poem: “Up from a past that‘s rooted in pain”, “Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave”.

Grammatical Categories

Kinds of Sentences (Functions)

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 The three kinds of sentences identified in the poem are assertive, imperative and interrogative. The assertive sentences mentioned above establish the poet’s autonomy and resilience in her tone. They demonstrate the poet’s qualities of unmatched and unwavering courage and confidence in the poem, such that the reader can almost feel the impact of her words. This, in turn, gives her readers (especially female readers) the encouragement they require to go out in the world, cut through and get what they want. Rather than whining that the circumstances are not suitable, Angelou through the use of assertive sentences is urging her readers to change their behaviors and outlook towards life. Similarly use of imperative sentences substantiates her commanding behavior whereby she has the upper hand and authority over men. The interrogative sentences convey that she is self-assured whereas others need to be answerable for their sentiments and actions. At the same time, she refuses to deliver answers for interrogations that she does not deem appropriate, because ultimately, it is Angelou who gets to decide the choices she makes in her life.

Kinds of Sentences (Structure)

6

Angelou uses both simple and compound/complex sentences in the poem. The simple sentences carry directness and seriousness of the poet’s thought, whereas the compound and complex sentences tell that the speaker in the poem is thinking on a deeper level, contemplating, and has gone into a reflective or interrogative mode.

 Phrases

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While the noun, verb and gerund phrases are informing of the nature of the action, the prepositional and participle phrases are used to reveal how and where the action is performed.

Figures of Speech

Figures of speech are immensely important and deliver richness to a poetic piece, enabling a poet to convey details indirectly, enhancing contrast or similarity, and facilitating understanding and poetic pleasure, where one thing can be understood and decoded with reference to another. Angelou adorns her poem “Still I Rise” with the following figures of speech:

Simile

Similes are figures of speech which convey the likeness of one object or its attributes to another through the use of words ‘like’ and ‘as’. Angelou makes use of this device extensively when she says:

“Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise”

Here she compares her high hopes to the moon and sun which are situated out of the grasp of ordinary human beings. Angelou, on the contrary has access to these natural entities. Similarly, she conveys her conviction to rise against all odds just like the tides are sure to come.

Angelou also establishes that she intends to use the opposing circumstances to her benefit when she says that the same rising ‘dirt’ others will tread her in, will be her inspiration to rise. Hence she saysBut still, like dust, I’ll rise”. Similarly, she compares her stooping shoulders to that of the likeness of teardrops when she says “Shoulders falling down like teardrops”. It is interesting to notice the parallel between the two because she previously states that her shoulders would stoop because of the listener’s fear, while tears usually ooze out, out of fear too.

Furthermore, Angelou describes the reasons for her haughtiness and pride which are a result of the abundance of her wealth (because Africans in America were generally considered people with a lack of resources). She says:

“’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells / Pumping in my living room”

“’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines / Diggin’ in my own back yard”

Although this isn’t literally possible, theses similes do heighten the effect of the poet’s utterances.

Metaphor

Metaphor is also one of the most widely employed figures of speech in which one object is said to be another, keeping in view a common attribute between the two. Angelou uses metaphorical language when she calls herself a “black ocean” in

“I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide”.

Here it can be noticed that the only common trait among the two objects (Angelou herself and the ocean) is the vastness and diversity of the ocean. She thus literally calls herself an ocean implying that she is a mystery that not everyone can decode and she is a versatile being, containing within herself strength like the ocean has that of water; magnanimous and life giving, and immensely destructive all at once.  By addressing herself as an ocean, however, she is also referring to the collective female strength, both in the world and in terms of female writing. Cixous also refers to the same phenomenon when she says that females write in ‘white ink’, which highlights the element of motherly instinct and concern in women’s writings, which can only be decoded by female readers. Angelou also claims her sexuality when she presents water images of an ocean “leaping and wide”, “welling and swelling”, bearing in the tide. It could be a reference to women’s ability to enjoy sexual pleasures as much as men and their ability to attain an orgasm. Cixous also urges women to claim this unique ability of not only enjoying intimacy (like men do) but also of producing another life and giving birth (something men can’t do and never perhaps will by nature). She also advocates ‘guiltless’ female masturbation because women’s bodies are theirs to conquer and explore.

Angelou also refers to herself as the ‘dream’ and ‘hope’ of the slave when she says:

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

Dream and hope are abstract nouns, aspirations, and cannot be literally a human being. Metaphorically, this verse suggests that Angelou is the fulfilled manifestation what slaves hoped and dreamt of becoming in the future.

Personification

Angelou uses personification in “huts of history’s shame” where she personifies history by attributing a human quality “shame” to it. History is personified in order to stress the magnanimity of the impact of slavery and the atrocities it inflicted on human beings. History, like an alive being, carries the burden of the years of slavery.

Synecdoche

Angelou employs the trope of synecdoche when she says I am the dream and the hope of the slave”. Here, by ‘slave’ she is referring to and representing the entire slave community which suffered at the hands of slavery.

Interrogation

Angelou uses excessive use of interrogation when she repeatedly addresses the listener and inquires:

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Does my haughtiness offend you?

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

This determines the confidence and determination of the speaker who does not portray these questions for the sake of interrogation alone but to assert her thorough knowledge of the opposite sex.

Climax

There is no anticlimax in the poem which shows that there is only rising action in the poem and no falling or declining action. The climax of the poem lies where the speaker says:

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

This is the epitome of the poem as well as of the poet’s sentiments when she finally declares that her ultimate motif is to prove herself as not just a strong woman, but a black woman who comes from an ancestral background of slaves but has risen against all odds.

Deviation

Deviation is a phenomenon when a set of rules or expectations are broken in some way in a literary text. Deviation gives the text (especially poetry) its unique layout and gives the poet the opportunity to move around and play with th subject at hand, instead of following the same pattern over and over again. The kinds of deviation can be divided into as many categories as there are stylistic categories. Below, some of the deviations in “Still I Rise” are explored.

Phonological Deviation

Angelou makes use of aphesis when she uses the word “‘Cause” instead of because. Aphesis directly refers to omission of a few letters in a word in the beginning. Here, the use of “’cause” also informs the readers of her African origin because Afro-Americans tend to eat up certain letters in a word in spoken English. This could also be considered resistance on part of the poetess to use dialectical accent instead of proper English. Similarly apocope is used in the use of the word “diggin’”.

Semantic Deviation

When Angelou claims:

“’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells/ Pumping in my living room”, “’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines / Diggin’ in my own back yard” and “I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide, /I am the dream and the hope of the slave”, it does not imply that she actually has got oil wells in her living room or gold mines in her back yard, neither is she an ocean. These expressions have been used in a metaphorical manner to facilitate easy understanding. Since on the literal level this seems an absurd and impossible claim, it can be said that the poet has semantically deviated.

Repetition and Parallelism

Angelou makes use of parallelism in the following verses in order to deeply inculcate an idea within the readers’ minds. For instance the repetition of “I’ll Rise” in the poem declares it as being a revolutionary poem. Some of the other parallel verses are as follows:

“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt”

“You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness”

Similarly, repeated interrogatory sentences in the poem also form a parallel structure within the poem:

Does my sassiness upset you?

Does my haughtiness offend you?

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise?

Phonological

8

Morphological Parallelism

Moons, suns (-s)

Bowed, lowered, weakened (-ed)

Synonymous Parallelism

You may write me down in history… You may tread me in the very dirt

Just like moons and like suns… Just like hopes springing high,
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,

Anaphora

It is the deliberate repetition of first part of the sentence and is used to achieve an artistic effect and to assert the semantic fields of the poem. The anaphora used in “Still I Rise” includes:

“You may”, “Does”, “But still, I rise”,

Antithesis

Antithesis, literal meaning opposite, is a rhetorical device in which two opposite ideas are put together in a sentence to achieve a contrasting effect. An antithetical statement might be accompanied by a ‘but’. The antithetical statements used in this poem include:

“You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise”

“You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise”

Coherence and Cohesion

Cohesion

Grammatical

Verses in the poem are written in present and future tenses which impart grammatical cohesion to the poem.

Lexical

There is a reiteration of expressions like “you may”, “does” and “I rise” in the poem.

Semantic

The semantic fields, like those of the poem being a slave narrative, a revolutionary uprising, and a feministic, are established through repetition of expressions belonging to the same fields

 Coherence

Cohesive devices like similar words and expressions are repeated such that they instantly allow forming connections and facilitate interpretations by the reader. Cohesive devices show the logical relationships between the various parts of the poem, sentences and paragraphs. They usually include transitional words and expressions. The cohesive expressions used within Still I Rise include:

9

Conclusion

As a result of decoding language through various stylistic levels, we are able to deduce that at the nucleus of “Still I Rise” is the idea of female uprising against male subjugation, especially females belonging to the black race in America. Cixous in “The Laugh of Medusa” accuses men rightly of committing the greatest crime against women by making them feel that they are a “dark continent” and thus need to be ashamed of their selves. By making them fearful of their own realities, they have caused them “to be their own enemies, to mobilize their immense strength against themselves”, instigating an antinarcissism, a feeling of antilove – love of what they lack in and what they haven’t got. Angelou thus urges women to fight back and to claim their unique identities with pride. She makes it very clear that women which  you (men) wanted to see with bowed heads and lowered eyes, not only refuse to comply, but they shall rise above all odds.

Maya Angelou instills a feeling of dignity and courage within her readers and triggers a vision that sees women as beings of immense worth, thus becoming a representative for many generations of females to come. She emphasizes on being the signifier, not the signified, to always be choosers and never be beggars. Cixous teaches women strategies and not tactics; she advises, “Take a look around, then cut through!” and justifies her stance on feminism by saying that this is “not to strengthen their own narcissism” or to verify “the solidity or weakness of the master (men)” but to “make love better, to invent”. Maya replicates the same idea by saying “You may kill me with your hatefulness, / But still, like air, I’ll rise”. In an interview she once said emphasizing on the necessity of love, “I don’t personally trust any revolution where love is not allowed”. Both writers were feminists who supported the idea of encouraging “womanism” – development of a woman who is an embodiment of an amalgam of qualities; love, honesty, integrity, strength, commitment, sexual fulfillment and a profound understanding of gender equality.

Angelou defined her struggle in life as being the one in which she does not just ‘survive’ but wants to ‘thrive’, and in doing so she wants to maintain her passion, compassion, humor and style. Both Angelou and Cixous maintain that, together women can make this world a heaven for themselves, that in each other’s eyes, they see their own selves. Their stances are so similar that Cixous’s end to “The Laugh of the Medusa” seems like a quote from Maya Angelou, addressing women of the world and universalizing their “unappeasable search for love”, she says, “In one another we will never be lacking”.

To conclude, it must be said that it is through language (verbal or non-verbal) that we all communicate. Using the right words in order to set the right kind of tone and to produce the required effect is absolutely mandatory. Similarly, for readers, this systematic endeavor of decoding language in a literary text is extremely important and a skill worth learning. Thus, stylistic analysis proves very beneficial in understanding any literary text and is facilitative in making one realize that language and literature, although are varied disciplines, they exist in close proximity and stylistics serves as the tool to bridge the gap. This research also aims to encourage readers to adopt the habit of looking at a literary piece through the stylistic lens and fully understand that basic stylistic knowledge is indispensable to the reading to literary works.

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