In order to fully appreciate this influential and captivating poem, it is essential to briefly introduce this “global renaissance woman” and how her background is interwoven into this poem’s theme. Maya Angelou was born in St. Lois, Missouri on April 4, 1928, and while she is well known for her poetry, she is also an acclaimed author, playwright, actor, director, historian, and an avid civil rights activist. She has lived in Egypt and Ghana, where she met Malcolm X and upon her return to America, she helped him build his Organization of African American Unity. After Malcolm X was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King asked Angelou to serve as Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Angelou’s went through many hardships in her life, including her parent’s separation, estrangement from her parents (later reunited with her mother) rape, teenage pregnancy, and family roots in slavery.
Still I Rise is part of a 32-poem series called and Still I Rise. The Series is divided into three parts, and Still I Rise is the first poem in Part Three, which is also called And Still I Rise. Throughout this series, she tends to focus on hope and determination and how to rise above difficulty and discouragement. Specifically in this poem, she focuses on independence, feminism, African-American pride, beauty, integrity, and resilience. The poem contains nine stanzas, with the first seven containing four lines each, and the last two stanzas containing six and nine lines, respectively. Various poetic techniques are used throughout the poem, including hyperbole, metaphor, rhetorical questioning, repetition, rhyme, and symbolism.
The most obvious (and probably most powerful) use of repetition throughout the poem is her continuous use of the words (in any combination), “Still…I’ll Rise.” At times, the phrase is separated by several words, as in the first stanza, “But still, like dust, I’ll rise” and the and sixth stanza “But still, like air, I’ll rise.”
This is written in the simple future tense and denotes the idea that the author will rise and overcome obstacles and oppression that she may face in the future. Other times, she simply uses the phrase, “I rise,” as can be seen twice in the eight stanza and five times in the ninth stanza. This use of present tense represents Angelou’s current and most recent ways in which she battles oppression. In the third stanza, she states “Still I’ll Rise,” probably the most powerful of all the repetitious statements, as it denotes the future, but with the implication that she has done it before, and will do it again. Interestingly, she never uses the actual phrase of the poem’s title, maybe because she wanted that to be implicitly understood: In the present tense, I am currently rising above my oppressors and I will do it again.
Rhyme also plays a role in most stanzas of this poem, adding to the power and intensity of the poem: it reiterates Angelou’s message of staying strong and never giving up. For example, in the first stanza, she rhymes “lies” with “rise,” and in the second stanza, she rhymes “gloom with “room.” This will be addressed later in the essay, but it is significant how she opens the first two lines of each stanza addressing her “oppressor” and then she answers it with a powerful and stoic answer, where she answers her “oppressor.” Here, only the second and fourth lines rhyme, combining the oppression with her “rise” above it.
Symbolism is also evident in Angelou’s poem, particularly as it relates to confidence, strength, and feminism. The words, “I rise” seem to represent the action of standing up or moving past something. In other words, that in order to get past an obstacle, one has to get up and keep moving. Specifically, she refers to “dust” in the first stanza, which gives the impression of light particles rising above the ground, just as Angelou has risen above those who have harmed her. Another example of symbolism occurs in the eight stanza, where Angelou states, “Out of the huts of history’s shame I rise,” denoting slavery. Further in the stanza she bears, “I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide, welling and swelling I bear in the tide,” symbolizing the African-American struggle of having to leave the past behind and move forward (like the natural ebb and flow of the ocean tides).
Imagery also plays a central in this poem, where Angelou attempts to evoke strong emotions in the reader by creating vivid pictures in the reader’s mind. One powerful example of this technique can be seen in the second stanza where she states, “Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells pumping in my living room.” One can immediately imagine thick, powerful oil wells situated in a beautifully decorated living room. The juxtaposition creates a powerful image of a confident (and muscular) woman strolling through her living room, with the poise and stamina of Mohamed Ali. Same is true of the above-mentioned phrase, where strong ocean tides conjure up the image of how slaves or other oppressed persons were beaten by their owners, but were able to persevere and “leap” through the harsh tyranny of the slave owners.
Angelou’s use of hyperbole, metaphor, and rhetorical questioning to illustrate her strong feelings about injustice and what she perceived as tyranny, are also very prominent throughout this poem. The best illustration is in the sixth stanza where she says,
“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.”
The words, “Shoot, cut, and kill” are not meant to be taken literally; rather, they are meant to be represent Angelou’s strong feelings about the immense imprint that the past oppressors have left upon her. Her rhetorical questions, “Does my sassiness upset you?” “Did you want to see me broken?” “Does my haughtiness offend you?” “Does my sexiness upset you?” (in the next stanza), are meant to convey her strong emotion by asking the reader a question to which she/he already knows the answer to. I know is it grammatically incorrect to end this essay with a preposition, but who says an upcoming poet cannot break the rules?