To summarize the poem, Angelou focuses most of the stanzas on mocking the efforts of the racist people (to whom her poem is addressing) that were intended to destroy her as a person, only to retaliate with the fact that they made her stronger as a person in her fight to achieve equality for African-Americans. Equality is a common subject that Angelou incorporated in her poems because she was an avid civil rights activist her entire life. She organized benefits centered on her work as an actress and a director that would fund civil rights groups (“Maya Angelou Biography”). This is one of the main reasons why “Still I Rise” is the best representation of her work as a whole: because civil rights were one of the most honorable causes that she supported in her life. The majority of her poems were based on the theme that racism is a force to be reckoned with that must be fought against by people taking a stand. In addition to the common theme that Angelou utilized throughout her poetry, there are other elements of “Still I Rise” that make this poem indicative of being the best representation of Angelou as a poet her work has to offer. When looking at a range of her work, it can be concluded that she typically arranged her poems loosely around the abcb rhyme scheme, with some gaps depending on the poem. This is present throughout all of “Still I Rise” until the last stanza, and is also present in Angelou’s poems “Phenomenal Woman,” “Woman Work,” “Million Man March Poem,” “Equality,” and “Human Family.” An underlying subject matter that may not be apparent at first glance is that of feminism. The narrator is a woman, and her comments directed at combatting racism include a secondary message that women who are in the same situation as she is should have the right to feel powerful and confident no matter what the situation at hand may be. Angelou’s poems “They Went Home,” “Phenomenal Woman,” “Men,” “Woman Work,” and “Momma Welfare Roll” all focus on the subject of women and gender relations. This, in addition to civil rights, was one of the most common topics Angelou wrote about.
Despite her sheer lack of consistency with writing in a specific structure, one of the loose generalizations that can be made about the way Angelou liked to write was that her free verse style typically consisted of a few quatrains mixed in with long stanzas of no patterned arrangement whatsoever. This format is present in “Still I Rise” as well as most of her other poems. Another defining aspect of Angelou’s work is her use of figurative language, especially similes and metaphors. Comparisons play a key role in “Still I Rise,” because they are universal tools that help emphasize the meaning of everything from the joys of being a woman to the feeling of being rich. Repetition is another favorite of Angelou’s; the repeating of a word or phrase stresses the importance of the message a poet is trying to communicate, like she does with “I rise” in “Still I Rise.” Such repetition can be found in some of Angelou’s other works, such as “Phenomenal Woman,” “Million Man March Poem,” and “Equality.” Lastly, an element that is found in most of Angelou’s work is her unique use of diction. For those who have heard her speak, Maya Angelou had a very elevated, sage tone of voice that, despite the words she uses, makes anything she says sound like formal diction even though it’s not. What makes her diction so interesting is that the written words in a poem are informal with a moderate amount of dialect and slang that makes the poem relatable and easy to understand. However, even though the speaker speaks this way, the content of her poetry creates a tone that puts the speaker in a position of wise authority, as though their worldly knowledge trumps the informal way they speak, just as Angelou herself speaks. Her voice is in every poem she writes, despite any character she creates to tell a story.
Beginning the explication with the first two quatrains, the narrator immediately calls out the “you” that she is addressing throughout the poem. “You” embodies the persecution of African-Americans, the people who spread lies and mistreated them. The establishment of “you” is extremely important, because this poem has such an excessive amount of taunting, borderline cruel mockery that if an inherently evil force were not determined from the start, the narrator could risk being perceived as arrogant. Luckily this is not the case, since the historical context leaves little room for modern readers to harbor any sympathy for “you,” knowing who “you” is and what “you” is responsible for. The end of the first quatrain is an important one, because it is the first instance of figurative language and repetition: “But still, like dust, I’ll rise.” From a cultural critical standpoint, this is the beginning of the development of the role model that the narrator grows to be through the course of the poem. The purpose of the poem is to liberate African-Americans, and through this, Angelou makes the character of the narrator into a role model by providing examples such as this that demonstrate hardships that she had to face but was able to overcome by stating “still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
The next two quatrains harbor a specific type of simile/metaphor usage that is seen throughout the rest of the poem as well. In this poem, the narrator compared her actions of rising to things found in nature or natural occurrences of human emotions. In this section, the narrator sees rising as “Just like moons and like suns.” Throughout the poem she references rising to be “like dust” and “like air.” In other cases, she compares her actions to oil, teardrops, tides, gold, diamonds, and even calls herself a “black ocean” at the end of the poem. These nature references are strong assets to the role model character of the narrator, because they compare her thoughts and actions to worldly, heroic, beautiful acts of nature that appeal to everyone. The fourth stanza further mocks “you” by questioning, “Did you want to see me broken? / Bowed head and lowered eyes? / Shoulders falling down like teardrops. / Weakened by my soulful cries.” Clearly, according to the narrator, these meager efforts were all for naught because nothing can prevent her from rising.
The next quatrain contains one of the greatest similes of the entire poem: “’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines / Diggin’ in my own back yard” which is coupled with an earlier simile “’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells / Pumping in my living room.” What’s so genius about these two is that gold and oil are symbolic of wealth, which was not common amongst African-Americans. The fact that she used symbols of wealth in order to convey to “you” how happy she is insinuates that she finds “you” to be selfish and materialistic, since she clearly thinks they can’t understand the meaning of true happiness unless an abundance of riches at one’s fingertips is compared to it. The best part about these, however, is that in reality she doesn’t need the wealth of oil and gold to feel happy and empowered like “you” does. Finally, after all the cultural empowerment, the poem comes to a feminism reference through the use of repetition. In the beginning of stanzas two, five, and seven, the narrator repeats a modified question (“Does my [insert noun here] [insert negative verb here] you?”). While not exclusively feminine, “sassiness,” “sexiness,” and “haughtiness” are typically perceived as a female character trait. In a timely context, these traits were usually publically negative traits to have, and yet the narrator defends her possession of these traits because she is a powerful woman that has the confidence to take pride in everything she is because that’s what makes her happy. She couldn’t care less that “you” may have a problem with her womanly features, because in her mind it shouldn’t have any affect of them unless they let it. Now, this message of pride could be applied to any group of people in the proper context, but because the narrator is a woman and describes feminine features as ones that aren’t shameful, this message is directed towards women.
The last two stanzas consist of a quatrain and a lengthier stanza. The quatrain harbors another perfect simile that implores women to be proud of their gender. While this poem is mainly intended to be a source of hope and inspiration for African-Americans, Angelou is able to effectively incorporate messages intended for women like this next simile: “That I dance like I’ve got diamonds / At the meeting of my thighs?” The diamond between her thighs is something that she is perfectly content with, as reflecting by her dancing out of joy for having it. The final stanza alludes to America’s past period of slavery by “Leaving behind nights of terror and fear” because “[She is] the dream and hope of the slave.” Overall, the most significant aspect of the final stanza is the constant repetition of the phrase “I rise.” So much meaning is contained in such a small phrase; it reinforces Angelou’s message of hope and strength throughout the poem. Usually it is strategically placed after a verse with some indication of pain and suffering in order to counteract it. Rising is key to the whole point: if nothing else can come of an effort to be free, one must rise. No matter what, rising is crucial because it is how everyone will overcome the hatred and cruelty. Everyone must follow in turn if they want to be free.
For the entirety of the poem, Angelou maintained the abcb rhyme scheme with the exception of the last stanza, and applied her special brand of diction that combines formal with informal. The informal part of it is reflected through the use of words written in dialect, such as “’Cause” and “Diggin’.” Because of these words, Angelou clearly intended for the tone of the narrator to be that of an everyday, relatable Jane Smith plucked from the street. However, words such as “beset” and “certainty” are thrown into the mix in order for the narrator to surprise the readers as being smarter than she initially comes off. With this, the subject matter of the piece contributes to a reader’s perception of the narrator as being a sufferer of things unbeknownst to us, which automatically elevates the narrator to a position of higher knowledge. This provides the narrator with a sage, seemingly formal tone despite the casual use of dialect.
Assessing the poem as a whole, the theme that remains true to this poem and many other of Maya Angelou’s poems is that racism cannot and will not be tolerated by people who must know that they deserve so much more than what they are given. Women especially have more power than they think; no woman should be discouraged by sexism if they know that they surpass the standards that society holds them to. If one is not willing to rise, then they will get stuck in the mud, unable to escape until they learn to jump over the puddles. What makes “Still I Rise” so representative of Angelou’s work is that it is the embodiment of everything she had in mind when composing her poetry. Every aspect of the poem can be found elsewhere in her other works of poetry. Though it may not be her most famous poem, “Still I Rise” is able to incorporate all of her trademark stylistic elements: abcb rhyme scheme, powerful figurative language, repetition, free verse structure, informal diction, subject matter pertaining to women and civil rights, and a theme that encompasses the majority of her work.