Born Marguerite Annie Johnson, Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014) was an African American writer who is most famous for her poems and seven autobiographies. She was a prolific poet who explored numerous themes in her poems including that of women, love, loss, music, struggle, discrimination and racism. Maya Angelou has been referred to as “people’s poet” and “the black woman’s poet laureate”. Her poems continue to be extremely popular and have been called the anthems of African Americans. Know about the poetry of Maya Angelou through her 10 most famous poems including Phenomenal Woman, Alone and Still I Rise.
#10 Woman Work
Fall gently, snowflakes
Cover me with white
Cold icy kisses and
Let me rest tonight.
In this poem, the narrator is a stay-at-home mother who is engaged in a long day of tiring work. In the first stanza, she lists, without complaining, the various household chores she has to complete in a single day. The remaining paragraphs are more relaxed as the woman takes solace in nature and the poem ends with the woman expressing that elements of nature are “all that I can call my own”. In Woman Work, Angelou conveys masterfully a housewife’s want for rest from her tiring and mundane work, making it one of her most popular and relatable poems on women.
#9 When I Think About Myself
My folks can make me split my side,
I laughed so hard I nearly died,
The tales they tell, sound just like lying,
They grow the fruit,
But eat the rind,
I laugh until I start to crying,
When I think about my folks.
In this poem, Angelou presents the perspective of an aging maid to make a statement about blacks surviving in a world dominated by whites. The central theme of the poem is self-pride that prevents one from losing one’s will in spite of experiences involving degradation. The narrator has lived for more than sixty years in “these folks’ world” and now she chooses to laugh at her painful past, albeit the laughter chokes, aches and makes her cry. When I Think About Myself is perhaps the most famous poem from Angelou’s first poetry collection Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
#8 Touched by An Angel
We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.
In this poem, the narrator tells us, in numerous ways, the importance in our lives of love, without which we are in “exiles from delight”. Angelou uses words and phrases related to birth and children like “coiled in shells” and “weaned” to suggest that it is the touch of love which makes a person come of age and which helps her do away with “ancient histories of pain”, “chains of fear” and “shells of loneliness”. Touched by An Angel is one of Angelou’s most popular poems on the theme of love.
Over the white seas
rime white and cold
took her young daughters
sold her strong sons
churched her with Jesus
bled her with guns.
In this poem, Angelou talks about the history of the continent of Africa with its resources plundered by European imperialists and its people taken as slaves. In the first stanza, Angelou compares Africa to a beautiful woman; in the second she talks about the white invaders who “took her young daughters”, “sold her strong sons” and “bled her with guns”; and in the last she ends with renewed hope as Africa is “rising” and “striding” again.
Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
Can make it out here alone.
In this poem, the narrator makes a discovery while lying late at night that no one “can make it out here alone”. She then talks about the rich with “their hearts of stone” and about the difficult times which are approaching. One of Angelou’s most famous poems, Alone stresses on the basic need of humans to have people around them and the dangers of the world moving away from valuing the importance of others in our lives.
#5 A Brave and Startling Truth
When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear
In this poem, Angelou talks about the history of the human race which has tried to make civilization great through accomplishments like building marvelous monuments and gathering knowledge. However, she believes true achievement would be to give up hostilities and embrace peace. It is only then that we will be able to achieve our true potential and realize that true wonders of this world are actually we. With themes of human rights, peace and social justice, A Brave and Startling Truth, was written for 50th anniversary of the United Nations in 1995 and read by Maya Angelou at the commemoration.
#4 Caged Bird
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing
Maya Angelou’s most famous work, her first autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, takes its name from a line in the poem Sympathy by African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. This poem is inspired by the same poem, and like Sympathy, uses the imagery of a caged bird to dwell on the oppression faced by African Americans. However, unlike Dunbar’s poem, Caged Bird illustrates the differences between blacks and whites by also talking about a bird which is free and thus “dares to claim the sky”. In contrast, the caged bird sings, not to express joy, but to express his longing for freedom.
#3 Phenomenal Woman
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
In this poem, the narrator, a self-confident woman, talks about the traits that make her phenomenal despite her not adhering to the world’s view of how a woman should look. Despite not being “built to suit a fashion model’s size“, women wonder where her secret lies and men swarm around her like honey bees. Maya Angelou said that she wrote Phenomenal Woman for all women, regardless of their race or appearance. It is perhaps the most popular of her poems that she often recited for audiences during her public appearances. It was also one of Angelou’s poems featured in the 1993 American film Poetic Justice.
#2 On the Pulse of Morning
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.
I will give you no hiding place down here.
Maya Angelou famously recited this poem at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton on January 20, 1993. She thus became the second ever poet to be so honored, the first being Robert Frost, who recited “The Gift Outright” at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. The primary theme of the poem is its emphasis on unity despite the diversity of American culture. It calls for a “break with the past” and an effort to confront its mistakes. Angelou’s audio recording of the poem won the 1994 Grammy Award in the “Best Spoken Word” category. On the Pulse of Morning is one the most renowned poems of Maya Angelou and it is considered a great poem to recite aloud and perform.
#1 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.
This poem has been called a “proud, even defiant statement on behalf of all Black people”. It directly addresses the white oppressors of black people and responds to centuries of oppression and mistreatment they have suffered. It talks about various means of oppression, like writing which the narrator addresses in the first stanza of the poem. Still I Rise hails the indomitable spirit of Black people; and expresses faith that they will triumph despite adversity and racism. It is the most famous poem of Maya Angelou and it was also her favorite. She quoted it during interviews and often included it in her public readings. In 1994, Nelson Mandela recited Still I Rise at his presidential inauguration.