10 Most Famous Poems by Maya Angelou

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.

#10 Woman Work

Published:1978

Poem:-

I've got the children to tend
The clothes to mend
The floor to mop
The food to shop
Then the chicken to fry
The baby to dry
I got company to feed
The garden to weed
I've got shirts to press
The tots to dress
The cane to be cut
I gotta clean up this hut
Then see about the sick
And the cotton to pick.

Shine on me, sunshine
Rain on me, rain
Fall softly, dewdrops
And cool my brow again.

Storm, blow me from here
With your fiercest wind
Let me float across the sky
'Til I can rest again.

Fall gently, snowflakes
Cover me with white
Cold icy kisses and
Let me rest tonight.

Sun, rain, curving sky
Mountain, oceans, leaf and stone
Star shine, moon glow
You're all that I can call my own.

Synopsis:-

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

Published:1971

Poem:-

When I think about myself,
I almost laugh myself to death,
My life has been one great big joke,
A dance that's walked
A song that's spoke,
I laugh so hard I almost choke
When I think about myself.

Sixty years in these folks' world
The child I works for calls me girl
I say 'Yes ma'am' for working's sake.
Too proud to bend
Too poor to break,
I laugh until my stomach ache,
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.

Synopsis:-

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

Published:1995

Poem:-

We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.

Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.

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.

Synopsis:-

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.



#7 Africa

Published:1975

Poem:-

Thus she had lain
sugercane sweet
deserts her hair
golden her feet
mountains her breasts
two Niles her tears.
Thus she has lain
Black through the years.

Over the white seas
rime white and cold
brigands ungentled
icicle bold
took her young daughters
sold her strong sons
churched her with Jesus
bled her with guns.
Thus she has lain.


Now she is rising
remember her pain
remember the losses
her screams loud and vain
remember her riches
her history slain
now she is striding
although she has lain.

Synopsis:-

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.


#6 Alone

Published:1975

Poem:-

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don't believe I'm wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

There are some millionaires
With money they can't use
Their wives run round like banshees
Their children sing the blues
They've got expensive doctors
To cure their hearts of stone.
But nobody
No, nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

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,
'Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Synopsis:-

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

Published:1995

Excerpt:-

We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth

And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms

When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseum
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil

Read Full Poem Here

Synopsis:-

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

Published:1983

Poem:-

A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind   
and floats downstream   
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and   
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings   
with a fearful trill   
of things unknown   
but longed for still   
and his tune is heard   
on the distant hill   
for the caged bird   
sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

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.

The caged bird sings   
with a fearful trill   
of things unknown   
but longed for still   
and his tune is heard   
on the distant hill   
for the caged bird   
sings of freedom.

Synopsis:-

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 On the Pulse of Morning

Published:1993

Poem:-

A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,   
Marked the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dried tokens   
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom   
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.

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.

You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in   
The bruising darkness
Have lain too long
Facedown in ignorance,
Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.

The Rock cries out to us today,   
You may stand upon me,   
But do not hide your face.

Synopsis:-

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.


#2 Phenomenal Woman

Published:1978

Poem:-

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.

Synopsis:-

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.


#1 Still I Rise

Published:1978

Poem:-

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.

Synopsis:-

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.



8 thoughts on “10 Most Famous Poems by Maya Angelou”

  1. Sitting here at the kitchen table, I’m reading summations of Maya Angelou’s poems. My soul is inspired especially after reading I Rise and Phenomenal Woman. Her expression of living in a would of cruelty yet love exists, her expressions of self love when fear and doubt surrounds you, and her expressions of continuing to take steps in the direction of your dream shares the light of hope! Thank you Maya Angelou

    Reply
  2. Poetry as a piece of art… represent what the weak in the society go through… the likes of Maya Angelou were great mouth piece of the deprived… big up to them

    Reply
  3. Very touching… and very sincere… Rest In Peace, Maya… I wish we could be discussing poetry in person. I wish. I think, many years ago I watched “The Hard Talk” interlocution with You on BBC World. And liked it a lot. Steven Sackur was the moderator, as far as I recollect.
    Whereever You are now, Maya, and whatever You are accomplishing, I hope You do enjoy Poetry Maya. I did like You stanzas very much. They were salubriously senses awakening.

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