Brain Pickings

Maya Angelou Recites Her Poem “Phenomenal Woman”

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Beautiful recording brings to life a cultural classic.

Celebrated poet, memoirist, dramatist, actor, producer, filmmaker, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928–May 28, 2014) is one of the most influential literary voices of our time and a testament to the tenacity — creative, social, spiritual — of the human spirit. From her extraordinary autobiographies to her beautiful essays to her lesser-known children’s verses, Angelou has served as an inspiration to generations. To generations of women in particular, her poem “Phenomenal Woman,” found in the sublime and soul-lifting 1978 poetry volume And Still I Rise (public library), became an anthem of empowerment, and nowhere does it come to life more beautifully than as it pours out from Angelou’s own lips, who recites her iconic poem in this rare recording:

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
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
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

And Still I Rise is a magnificent read from cover to cover. Complement it with Angelou on freedom in a 1973 conversation with Bill Moyers, her charming children’s verses, illustrated by Basquiat, and her meditation on home, belonging, and (not) growing up.

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