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And Still I Rise (Maya Angelou)

March 26, 2010

Angelou’s poetry is a lot easier for me to follow than other kinds of poetry (ahem, lyric poetry, ahem) because each poem tells a story. I know, I’ve said this before. I think I might have said it for each and every last one of the poetry collections I’ve written about in this blog. Well, there it is — the bare truth. I like narrative poetry. So, back to Maya Angelou…. Of course, her poems are also different in that the stories they tell are not always of a specific individual, but of a somewhat abstract, more general individual. Oftentimes, the poems appear to be about African Americans in general (as opposed to a specific person), which is of course highlighted by Angelou’s interest in the African American experience, history, and culture. Take the title poem, “Still I Rise.” It’s a good example of a lot of the things I’ve been talking about here. While the narrative “I” appears to be an individual, the poem is general enough that there are no specifics about this person other than their race (African American). The last two stanzas provide a good example of what I’m talking about:

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 adn swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously cear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

This poem also brings up the unique rhythms Angelou uses. Okay, so maybe I can’t call them “unique” so much as I can say they’re not conforming to any rigid forms of poetry (sonnets, ballads, etc.) but instead have a rhythm all their own. She uses a lot of rhyming in her poems, but she seems to like to play with how she uses rhyme. It’s not always coming in the form of rhyming couplets or rigid internal rhyme scheme. Instead, it’s (again) a very rhythmic rhyming that is tailored to each specific poem. Within one poem, she might switch up the rhyme scheme from stanza to stanza. She does this in “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me” — some of the end rhymes (the -all sound, for instance) occur throughout the entire poem rather than just one stanza, while other end rhymes come in and out for single instances. The first stanza reads:

Shadows on the wall
Noises down the hall
Life doesn’t frighten me at all
Bad dogs barking loud
Big ghosts in a cloud
Life doesn’t frighten me at all

Obviously, here the rhyme scheme is fairly simple. However, the third stanza is different:

I go boo
Make them shoo
I make fun
Way they run
I won’t cry
So they fly
I just smile
They go wild
Life doesn’t frighten me at all.

Here, not only is the rhyme scheme different (rhyming couplets, essentially), but the structure is different enough that it could appear to be from a different poem entirely. The 3-words-per-line format is interesting, and reminds me of Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” in the way it truncates language and makes its own kind of linguistic sense. Suffice it to say, I enjoyed this collection immensely (a true feat for a poetically intimidated reader like myself).

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