Formalistic and historical-biographical criticism in Maya Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman"

Critical analysis

Essay, 2019
7 Pages, Grade: 1.1

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This critical investigation argues that the poem by Maya Angelou entitled, “Phenomenal Woman” is in formalism or can be scrutinized using formalistic approach due to the utilization of some poetic devices. This poem can be further decoded using historical- biographical approach due to the author's presence in the text.

In formalism, the text is the chief fountainhead of the investigation. A formalist critic is, in fact, not interested in the historical, political, sociological, and biographical context (Fard 334). Further, a formalist is not intrigued with the reader’s personal reaction, and the representation of realistic events (Leitch 17). What fascinates a formalist critic are the literary elements and other structural standpoints present in the text. Critics often use the close reading as technique in decoding a certain work. This strategy is the detailed analysis of the text's structure and other underlying patterns which connect or perhaps contribute to the overall meaning of the text (Gillespie 172). Some critics, however, deem this approach as an old fashion. Nevertheless, this criticism is still widely used by many literary individuals (Fuadi 125).

The historical-biographical approach is another lens used to decode the core motif and gist of this poem. This approach holds an idea that a certain literary masterpiece is interconnected to the biography or personal life of the author. Biography refers to a genuine narrative that is made or written by another person who knows the subject well (“Biography”). This criticism is initiated out of comprehending that a certain masterpiece is crafted by an alive individual. As such, the literary researchers scrutinize the author’s background which helps them comprehend the text. Biographical critics, however, must be careful of using this lens. Inconsiderate usage of this approach perhaps results in the distortion of the author’s personal background and perhaps upshot to the unjustified interpretation of the text (“Critical Approaches”). Further, a text may provide sentiment of its own identity, and can give cryptic connection to the author (Bennett and Royle 19). Possing goes on elaborating that this approach is the reestablishment of the function of humanity and portrayal of the history of particular person (2). The centerpiece to keep in mind of using this approach is the “connectivity factor.” A historical-biographical critic reads the author's biography and finds related event in a masterpiece which mirrors the personal life of the writer.


The literary devices of this masterpiece are identified in order to reveal the poetic structure. More so, the biography of the author and the ironical perspectives of the text are further determined in order to show any connective viewpoints.

Poetic devices are tools that aid in comprehending the text. Diction, vision, figure of speech, imagery, addressee, persona, and message are some of the poetic devices in this poem. Moreover, alliteration, anaphora, and refrain are other devices delineated in this poem. In biographical aspect, irony as one of the figurative languages is used in order to reveal the author's presence in the text; however, it is merely implied.


Diction refers to the author’s selection of words and other structural identities which aid in determining the general signification of the text (Pennsylvania Department of Education 4). The poem's diction is informal and plain. This informal diction is evident with the usage of contraction, for instance, instead of using “I am” the author contracts it into “I’m.” This is likewise manifested in these following phrases: “It's,” “that’s” “can’t” “cause,” and “don't.” The plain diction is delineated by using everyday speech that can be easily understood.

The poem values the persona-addressee transaction. Persona is the speaker of the poem. Some scholarly articles call this element as an implied author (“Glossary” 8). Further, addressee is the receiver of the poem's message. The poem's persona is a confident woman, and its poetic message is addressed to all women who are proud and confident about their demeanor and looks. Moreover, imagery is the usage of descriptive language to show an effect of vividness. This element lets the reader imagines and creates vivid images out of the descriptive words used by the poet; the utilization of the body senses is further emphasized in this element (State Education 15). The poem has descriptive language as stated in these following lines: “The sun of my smile/The ride of my breasts/The grace of my style” (Angelou lines 39-41). These lines create images via using the senses. In fact, the poem's imagery occurs due to the description of persona’s physical appearance; thus, this poem has a descriptive form due the usage of images and adjectives.

Furthermore, figure of speech refers to the nonliteral usage of language (Pennsylvania 5).This poem has numerous figurative languages. This poem has metaphor, hyperbole, personification, and irony. Metaphor refers to the direct comparison of two things. Typically, a concrete thing is compared to abstract thing sans utilizing like and as (Winterowd and Murray 695). The poem's metaphors are as follows: “Then they swarm around me/ hive of honey bees” (Angelou lines 19-20), and “it’s the fire in my eyes,” (Angelou lines 22). The former shows direct compassion of men (the “they” in the poem) to the honey bees. Men are therefore allured with the beauty of the speaker; the latter delineates the direct comparison of speaker's “confidence and passion with fire” (“Phenomenal Woman”). Further, personification, is a comparison of human beings to nonhuman; to quote Winterowd and Murray (196): “Personification is a form of indirect comparison in which human qualities are given to nonhuman objects or ideas.” The poem’s personification is found in the second stanza: “And the joy in my feet” (Angelou line 25). The feet are personified as human beings who are delighted as they move their bodies with a musical accompaniment (“Phenomenal Woman”). Moreover, hyperbole refers to a language that is stated exaggeratedly. The hyperbole is used in order to emphasize speaker's dominant position: “I walk into a room/Just as cool as you please/ And to a man/The fellows stand or/ fall down on their knees” (Angelou lines 14-18). Additionally, irony is the act of using words that mean the contrary what is really expressed or meant; the poem's irony runs throughout the text. The author is indeed being ironic in presenting speaker's milieu.

Sound devices are part of poetic elements. One of the sound devices found in this poem is alliteration. To consider a text in alliterative configuration, one must look at the repetitive usage of initial consonant sounds (Pla 5). The alliteration can be seen in the first line of the first stanza of the poem, as stated: “Pretty woman wonder” (Angelou line 1). The poem is, in fact, anaphoric due to the repetition of word or expression at the beginning of consecutive phrases. This is manifested in some stanzas of the poem: “The span of my hips/The stride of my step/The curl of my lips” (Angelou lines 8-10). On a related note, Pla (6) declares that refrain is the repetition of stanza or line again and again in a poetic craft. The refrain is presented at the end of every stanza: “I'm a woman/Phenomenally /Phenomenal woman/That's me” (Angelou lines 10-13). This poem is non-metrical and non-rhyming, and thus it is written in free verse. The poetic message of this masterpiece is that race, colors, and affiliations do not define the genuine value of an individual, and hence respect, attention, and love must be foregrounded in order to have a peaceful, and pluralistic society.


Following the discussion of poetic structures is the biographical standpoint of the text.

In the first stanza, the speaker states how she looks like by using descriptive languages. Also, she states that she has the quality of a picture-perfect woman that no exact apparel can fit to her extraordinary beauty, and this makes other women wonder: “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”(Angelou lines 1-2).

The second stanza provides details about the speaker's perspective about other men. She says that numerous men stare at her charismatic figure, and then she goes on declaring that she is a remarkable woman: “I'm a woman/Phenomenally./ Phenomenal woman/That's me” (Angelou lines 26-29).

The foremost ironical notion is presented in the first and in the second stanza. It is the opposite of what is really meant and is contrary of what the author really experienced. During early years in the campus, the young Maya never gets rid of criticism from those condemnatory individuals who deem she cannot achieve something in the future. Burt (1) points out that Maya gains knowledge on how prejudice happens and how it feels to be treated poorly or humiliated by the whites. This only shows that the author is not well respected and idolized with her beauty among men and women who surround her. The fact that the speaker is a woman shows the author's gender identity. The speaker, as noted in the text, is appreciated in an ironical way. This mirrors author's personal experiences. She is an Afro- American woman. In her early life, she is in trouble due to her race and skin color. Additionally, she lives in advance society wherein men and women have identified and adapted themselves in more advanced culture. This gives her an endeavor to work hard in order to adapt on their culture; however numerous people knock her down, and this gives her as spiteful scar.

In third and fourth stanza, it recounts concerning men who are insane in her figure or inner mystery. In the third stanza, the speaker conceives herself as self- confident and strong enough in facing those reprehended individuals; she also deems of herself as a woman with good bearing, and as someone who does not behave in eccentric way. The ironical notion is further presented in the fourth stanza. The lines are totally contradictory to the personal life of the author. In fact, the most devastative thing happens to Maya is when she is sent to her mother and is raped by her mother's lover (Burt 1). In the article “Maya Angelou Biography,” Maya suffers a consecutive downfall when she is compulsorily attested against her rapist, as noted: “To add to the emotional torture, she was forced to testify against her attacker. After her uncles murdered the rapist, the tenderhearted eight year old, refusing to speak, crept into a wounded, private world of fear and guilt.” Thus, some critics theorize that the author behaves in a strange way, and possesses an introvert demeanor. This only shows that her life as a black woman is full of unpleasant memories which mirror her ironical masterpiece.


A. In a capsule, the poem’s structure is revealed through poetic devices in this sequence:

1. Alliteration is found in the first stanza.
2. Personification, metaphor, and hyperbole are found in the second stanza.
3. Anaphora, imagery, persona, addressee, irony, refrain, and message - these devices are found throughout the poem; others are merely implied.

B. In a capsule, the poem’s ironical notion shows the connection between the speaker and the author in this sequence:

1. The first stanza reveals the poem’s ironical notion concerning how other men and women look at the speaker in relation to author’s personal life; then
2. It carries on in the second stanza.
3. The third stanza discloses the poem’s notion concerning how delightful, and self-confident the speaker towards other individual which is somewhat sarcastic to what the author has really experienced.
4. The ironical notion continues in the fourth stanza.

Based on the critical investigation, it is concluded that Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” is in formalism or can be decoded using formalistic approach. This is due to the utilization of some poetic devices that are found in one of those lines of this poem. This critical investigation further concludes that the poem can be decoded in a historical- biographical approach. This is due to the ironical notion of text which reflects the author’s personal life.


Al Fuadi, Mohammed. Formalist Criticism and Reader-Response Theory. PDF.

Angelou, Maya. “Phenomenal Woman .Maya Angelou- poems. - The World's Poetry Archive, 2012, pp. 45-46. PDF.

Bennett, Andrew, and Nicholas Royle. An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. Third edition. Pearson Education Limited, 2004. PDF.

Burt, Sharon. Maya Angelou Biography. Regents of the University of Minnesota, 2009. PDF “Definition of Biography.” Literary Devices. Accessed July 7, 2019.

Fard, Saeed Farzaneh. “A Short Introduction to Literary Criticism.” International Journal of Humanities and cultural studies ISSN 2356 592, 2016, pp. 328-337. PDF

Gillespie, Tim. Formalist Criticism for students: Analyzing Writing Craft. Stenhouse Publisher, 2010. PDF. Glossary of Critical Terms for Prose. PDF.

Leitch, Vincent B. The Norton Anthology ·of Theory and Criticism. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001. PDF. “Maya Angelou Biography.” Cliffnote. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Accessed July 8, 2019.

Pennsylvania Department of Education. Keystone Exams: Literature Glossary to the Assessment Anchor & Eligible Content. 2014. PDF. “Phenomenal Woman.” Literary Devices. Accessed July 6, 2019.

Pla, Elsa Elements Of Poetry. 2011. PDF.

Possing, Birgitte. “Biography: Historical.” pp. 2-13. PDF.

The State Education Department . Literary Terms & Devices in English for Language Arts English / Arab. 2016. PDF.

Winterowd, Ross W. and Patricia Y. Murray. English Writing and Skills. Coronado edition, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc., 1988. Print.

“9 Critical Approaches to Literature” <> Accessed 3 July 2019.

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Formalistic and historical-biographical criticism in Maya Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman"
Critical analysis
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The author is an industrious and clever student. He is the current chairman of their class and mayor of one of the organizations in the school. In fact, he is able to publish a research entitled:" The Distinction between Chaucer and Shakespeare’s Rendition of Their Troilus and Criseyde (Cressida)" in one of the journals in the Philippines. Further, he is a consistent Dean's Lister in the school.
formalistic, maya, angelou, phenomenal, woman, critical
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Kimberth Obeso (Author), 2019, Formalistic and historical-biographical criticism in Maya Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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