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Explore how poets use language and structure to present the theme of identity in Still I Rise by Maya Angelou and An Unknown Girl by Moniza Alvi.
In the poem “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou, the poet uses poetic imagery and strong declarations to express to her audience how she will continue to be defiant in the face of oppression. The poet explores the idea of identity through the use of extended metaphors, similes and personifications of her womanhood and the brutal pain her ancestors had to endure as slaves to allow her to be free and independent.
“Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave” through this metaphor Maya Angelou describes her body as a powerful gift which her history has given her to rise and grow through the oppression.
The first stanza of the poem begins with the injustice history has done to the poor black people and how their popular image has been being manipulated. While the poet gives a powerful blow on the one hand to discrimination and slavery, on the other she evokes a picture of hope that the flame God lit could never be extinguished by men.
The poor and the downtrodden will rise and fight for their liberty. You try to bring us down to dirt and we again fly like dust in the air. There is a light touch of rebellion and a hard doze of defiance in these lines. For generations they had remained slaves, bowing their heads, tied to their master”s will and obeying without question.
White people would want them to remain so. They would like to see them again bowing their heads, weak in the soul. The lines speak of the determination in the hearts of African Americans to fight against oppression. The poet asks if the people who want her and her people to remain slaves will not be offended by her pride. Do not people really hate my free behavior and the way I laugh over adversities. The African Americans laugh wholeheartedly like no one is richer than them and they have got gold mines in their backyard. “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.”
The pattern of asking questions and answering them makes the poem amusing as well as interesting. It acts to strengthen the scorn in the poem and highlights how hard these people have fought to win their freedom and how hard they will fight to retain it. The tone of the poem is however more universal. It is not just about the oppression of black people at the hands of the whites, but about every form of oppression whether that of a woman by a man or a man trying to dominate another. The poem is also an inspiration for the modern generation of people of color. Their ancestors fought through dreadful darkness to make way for a beautiful tomorrow. Out of a history of pain, humiliation and sorrow, they have come out like a black ocean. With their sheer determination and will, they can turn the tide. However, vengeful methods you try, you cannot stop someone from rising. “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.”
This is a poem aimed at the oppressor. The first ‘You’ in the first line and the rhyme scheme abcb, which tightly knits the stanza together. It’s worth going through the rhyme’s effect because the full rhymes such as eyes/cries, hard/backyard, surprise/thighs continue up to the last two stanzas when the scheme changes from abcb to abcc and aabb, giving an absolute solid ending to the piece. The natural imagery is far-reaching and the voice loud. There are moons and suns, tides and black ocean; there’s clear daybreak and ancestral gifts, all joining together in a crescendo of hope. Similes and metaphors abound. Every stanza has at least one, from the first ” “But still, like dust, I’ll rise.” to the last” “I am the dream and the hope of the slave.” There’s a defiance in the poem as you read through as if the speaker is trying to prick the conscience of the oppressor, by reminding them of past wrongs and present realities. The word sassiness suggests an arrogant self-confidence, backed up by the use of haughtiness, and sexiness. The poet’s use of hyperbole with these three nouns adds a kind of absurd beauty. “Does my sexiness upset you? / Does it come as some surprise / That I dance like I’ve got diamonds / At the meeting of my thighs?”. Stanza 6 brings the oppressive issue to a climax so to speak. Three lines begin with ‘You’, the speaker choosing particularly active verbs – shoot, cut, kill – to emphasize the aggression. But all to no avail for the oppressed will still rise, this time like air, an element which you cannot shoot, cut or kill. The last stanza is longer than the others as it”s to symbolize growth and improvement as well as power, the last three lines add on to the idea of power as she rises over and over again.
Though the extended trope of sexuality in Still I Rise, female identity is defined as women who clearly do not exist for men”s sake alone, rather she is proud and confident as a woman herself. “That I dance like I’ve got diamonds at the meeting of my thighs”. This metaphor indicates the precious unbreakable rocks that very few can have, as these rocks are at her thighs and signify her femininity, strength and her beauty. The poet describes herself as a beautiful dancer being sensual for her own delight, rather than gratifying a jealous oppressor. She is not confident because she is pretty or trendy, controversially she is proud to be a woman who treasures herself. Every part and curves of her body make men fall down on their knees. Her inner mystery and beauty is so alluring that men blindly wonder what is so captivating about her; “Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells/pumping in my living room.” This metaphorically creates an idea of power and sexual attractiveness which no men can ignore. Through this metaphor, the speaker walks with enormous self-confidence, as though she were wealthy enough to own oil wells at home. As with the “pumping in my living room” Angelou’s image turns the home, which was once traditionally (and patronizingly) referred to as “a woman”s place,” into a site of productivity and power. The dynamic verb “pumping” metaphorically symbolizes the relationships of sexual nature between a woman and a man, hence stating her complete control over the simple act of the sexual encounter; as if it was in her own house, the poet is metaphorically declaring the ownership of the action.
Similarly, the female identity in An Unknown Girl is portrayed by the poet herself as well as the unknown girl in the bazaar. The unknown girl remains unnamed and gives the reader a sense of unfamiliarity which is then clarified at the end of the poem, “I’ll lean across a country / with my hands outstretched / longing for the unknown girl” through this metaphor she is reaching out to her the past version of herself with the mind of the new one, the new person who is willing to lean across a country. The verb “lean” metaphorically symbolizes how this new girl will find refuge, salvation and support in the country she had once lost, but could also symbolize the Indian within herself showing that she could lean against this new identity of hers whenever it begins to fade away. “It will fade in a week” her newfound identity soon will fade as the henna on her hand will, eventually the Western girl will emerge again.
In accordance with that, the poet”s use of juxtaposition in the line “she icing my hand,”; a comparison between cultures is generated. As the narrator is of a culturally different upbringing, the persona compares western culture to her cultural identity. The word “icing” refers to the western method of icing cakes, and this is juxtaposed to the Indian method of hennaing. This effect created imagery for the readers, as it helps them imagine the contrasts between the two different cultures. Moreover, the persona”s recollection of her cultural identity is successfully depicted to the readers from the use of juxtaposition. As a means of stressing the importance of henna within the persona”s culture, the poet repeats the line, “an unknown girl is hennaing my hand”. With this description serving as an insight into the narrator”s cultural identity, the use of repetition suggests the persona”s love for her culture, which is evidential to a large extent. The importance of hanna in Indian culture is also expressed through the repetition.
Throughout this poem, Alvi describes the scenery in and around the neon bazaar, using poetic techniques to enhance her descriptions. The tells us that the sky is getting darker by stating, “Colours leave the street” . Here, the use of personification amplifies the image of the sky becoming darker. Furthermore, the word “colours” is one that plays on the readers” senses, allowing them to generate their own images. Although this does not refer to henna, it does show readers that the narrator perceives India in its natural beauty and this suggest that the narrator has strong feelings about her background.
Alvi employs the use of end-stopped lines in key moments of the poem to highlight key aspects of identity. At the height of the poem, when Moniza Alvi is feeling deeply connected to her culture, she claims she has “new brown veins.” This is the first end-stopped line we encounter in the entire poem, and Alvi uses it to accentuate her connection to this newfound aspect of her identity. The “brown” she if referring to is the henna that the unknown girl is making on her hand, a peacock. The henna, as well as the peacock, are symbols of India, and the Indian cultural identity which the girl is now longing for. “a peacock spreads its lines across my palm” is a personification of the henna on her as it”s portrayed like a peacock spreading it”s lines, which symbolize the long and beautiful tail, this is a symbol of vanity and attractiveness.
The fact she has “new brown veins” shows the magnitude of how the speaker has been impacted by her hennaing experience, as the brown, of the henna and the peacock, is inside her, meaning that the Indian cultural identity is within her. Not only is it within her, but it has become her “veins”; it is necessary for her to live, as we need our veins to carry the blood to our body. These new veins and the flow of the henna is described by the layout of the poem as well, the poem outlines the thin figures created on her hand by the slim and uninterrupted flow of the words which juxtapose the identity in her heritage that fades all the time but always comes back, “I am clinging / to these firm peacock lines” is a hyperbole, metaphor and has the personification given to the lines. She exaggerates the “clinging” to the lines as they are only henna lines but the poet is desperate to rediscover her full identity.
“An Unknown Girl” is a limited metaphor utilized to describe the lack of identity and her loss of womanhood as her past childhood is breaking through and
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