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After a childhood full of cruelties, disappointments, and being raped at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend, Maya Angelou survived and became the most important civil, human, and Women’s Rights Activist. After her rape she was silent for 5 years, and only through the encouragement of her grandmother did she start to write and act. Her writings won her world acclaim and she was nominated for the National Book Award, a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize. She is indisputably one of the most influential women in history.
Her poem “I know why the caged bird sings” shows her grace and skill as a poet, and a humanitarian.
“I know why the caged bird sings” is a six stanza poem. The poem has a very traditional structure. The first two stanzas are triplets, followed by a quatrain, then another triplet, and ends with a quatrain. It has a very simple but effective rhyme scheme. The triplet stanza has a AAB rhyme, and the quatrain stanzas have a AAAB rhyme.
This poem is lyrical and intense. The themes presented in this poem are of a freedom and “triumph over adversity (Arensberg 273)”. In stanza one Angelou describes how birds in the wild have unbound freedom.
She writes “leaps on the back of the wind… dips his wings in the orange sunrays, (lines 1-3)” about the free birds activities. Her words affect the senses, and the reader feels the freedom the birds experience in flight. She brings nature and the outdoor elements to life and the audience is right there at play with the birds.
Freedom abounds! In stark contrast, the next stanza snaps the reader back from their dreamlike state. There are a series of very strong words that create a feeling of depression, and claustrophobia. Angelou explains the life of a caged bird.
“narrow cage, bars of rage, and wings clipped. (lines 3-6)” These phrases create a sense of dread and imprisonment. This evokes sympathy for the bird, and thoughts about if we were also imprisoned (Arensberg 280). The reader begins to think what is life unfair and, why that bird? and further, why me? “But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams, (line 14)” the poem continues and yet the bird still sings. Angelou comments “ The caged bird still sings with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still (lines 17-18)” about the bird who displays the only freedom he has at present, his voice.
Pierre Walker, in his 1995 article, comments “that the bird still dreams,“ and he has the determination to overcome and make the best of his situation. There is a single focus for Angelou use of alliteration in this poem. She uses the “s” sound over and over again – “his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream” (line 15). The “s” sound creates the feeling of wind, the whispering of tree leaves, the bird is scared but he sings because he can. He cannot fight his nature. He will find freedom anyway he can, and for that bird it is his singing.
The use of the rhyme scheme in the quatrain portion of the poem is AAAB. The inflexibility of the first three lines in stanza 3 “thrill…hill…shrill” create the perfect path to the true theme of this poem. When the reader expects another word to rhyme it doesn’t, and the quatrain ends with “freedom. ” The same is true for the last stanza, which is a repeat of the first. Liliane Arensberg explains that the rhyme reminds the reader that “there is always hope, there is always the will to survive and the promise at the end of the tunnel of light (Arensberg 289)” – of freedom.
“I know why the cage bird sings” by Maya Angelou is a very popular poem. Many people find inspiration in her words, and find solace in the hope and determination that bird has. If he can sing, so can the reader. If he can survive so can you. We cannot always choose our lot in life, but we can make the best of it. We can reflect, find out talents, and give those to the world. Maya Angelou presents a very important message to the reader in the form of a very lyrical almost song like poem by using strong imagery of a bird and it’s cage, the pursuit of freedom as a theme, a strong rhyme scheme, and alliteration.
Angelou skill as an author cannot easily be missed and neither can her message that we must overcome misfortune and strife to become what we were always meant to be.
Works Cited Angelou, Maya. The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou. 1st ed. New York: Random House, 1994. 101. Arensberg, Liliane K. “Death as Metaphor of Self in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. ” College Language Association Journal 20 (1976): 273-91. Walker, Pierre A. “Racial protest, identity, words and form in Maya Angelou’s ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. ‘. ” College Literature 1 Oct 1995. 23 Nov 2005 </>.
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