Monday, April 6, 2009

Maya Angelou - Still I Rise


You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod 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 backyard.

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.

---Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou's Still I Rise

Without fail, each time I read this poem and reach the final “I rise,” I'm compelled to hit the world head-on with every ounce of fight I've got. One of language's many complicated powers is its ability to act as a catalyst for change. We could easily say that a poem is just a bunch of words made to sit in the poet's waiting room of a mind until he or she calls their names and plucks them onto the page. The concept of the audience makes this untrue. The size, shape, intelligence level, socioeconomic status, or likeability of the audience is irrelevant. What matters is that in this exposure to the public world the piece of art (in our case, the poem) evolves beyond the artist's mind. I imagine the poem tossed into water, thrashing about until it learns that it can tread water or in some cases it just might be a natural swimmer. Staying with the sink-or-swim metaphor, swimming---when done right---sees the swimmer fall into a rhythm. Maya Angelou digs into her own personal history and the history of her people, unearthing a poem that is resoundingly courageous. “Still I Rise” is without a doubt a natural swimmer.

After the first stanza, much of the poem has been established. We know the gravity of the poem's subject: history's “bitter, twisted lies.” We also know that even vile aggression and seething hatred will not work because “like dust” our speaker will rise. Just as important, we know the poem's rhythm: the ABCB rhyme scheme, the assured voice, the seven to nine syllable lines, and the stresses at the end of lines. Almost immediately, we, as readers, are a part of this poem. Maya Angelou confidently crafts a tight first stanza that invites us in and hooks us at the same time.

Now that all that praise for the first stanza is out of the way, let me show you why I've included this poem in my all-time favorites. It's a rather simple, yet “sassy” two line sequence: “'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells / pumping in my living room.” Absolutely brilliant. I love everything about that simile; thankfully, Angelou doesn't cut herself off there---later we get to hear about her gold mines and diamonds. The unexpectedness of the simile is disarming, but at the same time it acts as a wooden spoon turning the large vat of creativity in my own mind. The simile is helped along by the “o” sounds (you, gloom, room) at the ends of the lines in this stanza. In repeating these shared sounds Angelou creates an escalating taunt or dare. If you don't want the poet's voice to be sassy then it irks you to no end and the simile with oil wells might be enough to stop you from reading on. But if you're like me then this simile and the lines surrounding it are a call of resiliency, a dare to push further and uncover more than oil wells within our speaker, far more indeed.

What else is contained in the poem's speaker? Angelou has already told us that she'll rise, but in the third stanza she ties the human spirit to nature and the natural elements that rise and fall without variation. From these examples she cycles the poem through the “breaking” of her spirit. “The bowed head and lowered eyes / shoulders falling down like teardrops.” These low points are necessary if she is going to rise, if any of us are destined to rise. We don't have to enjoy them, but we must make them useful by learning from them. Only then will we be able to deflect violence and say “You may kill me with your hatefulness, / but still, like air, I rise.”

Earlier I pointed out history and humanity as key themes within “Still I Rise.” I also took a whole paragraph to single out the oil well simile as a personal favorite of mine. Two other times in this poem Angelou likens herself to valuable commodities: gold and diamond mines. It's no coincidence that these are the valuables many people have fought and died over. These are meant to plant a seed in our minds to get us thinking quite heavily about history so that when the poem reaches “the huts of history's shame,” we can no longer avoid the poem's larger context: the ways in which people have been denied the dignity of basic humanity throughout history, specifically the plight of Africans made into slaves. Theirs is “the past that's rooted in pain.” Upon confronting the issue, Angelou decides to leave behind “nights of terror and fear / I rise / Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear / I rise.” She takes the lessons and treasures of her ancestors' sacrifices and moves forward. She will not forget that she remains “the dream and the hope of the slave.” This declaration carries more weight when you consider how it touches the poem's audience. We already determined the essential nature of the audience to a poem; in Angelou's case the audience is not just all of us reading the poem, but a collection of ancestors, known and unknown, who make her life and her art possible. For a long time I wondered why she repeated “I rise” three times to end the poem. Now, it's clear: once or twice is not enough to carry the power of whole generations extinguished before they could fully rise.


Calvin Pak said...

Wow. At first read, I could only get the bare picture of this amazing poem. But you have helped me to see it for what it really is; an inspirational poem. Thx XD

Matthew A Kaberline said...

Hi Calvin, I'm glad I could help illuminate the full power and scope of Angelou's exhilarating poem of perseverance and self discovery. Thanks for your kind words!

Anonymous said...

such a beautiful description of the poem. Thank you for posting.