Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” was originally published in 1978 in her third volume of poetry, And Still I Rise. The poem was also featured that same year in Cosmopolitan magazine. At the time of its publication, Angelou was already well known as a prolific writer of both prose and verse. Her first three autobiographies had been critical and commercial successes, and her first volume of poetry had been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
“Phenomenal Woman” is a celebration of female beauty—both tantalizing physical beauty and powerful inner beauty. While the poem makes no direct references to race, one can assume that Angelou is describing herself and thus expressing her pride as a powerful and beautiful black woman. The speaker establishes at the poem’s outset that her beauty is rather atypical. While she does not fit the description of a classically beautiful woman, both sexes nonetheless take notice of the speaker and are baffled by her allure. Other women question the secret to her radiant beauty and are jealous of her, while men desire her and likewise fail to understand from where this beauty emanates. In a proud and confident tone, the speaker details the features that make her so attractive while suggesting that her remarkable aura stems from a deeper inner beauty. Society may set standards for a woman’s beauty, but the speaker knows that what she possesses is a phenomenal, unique beauty radiating from her soul that no one can judge or emulate. The poem is written in free verse and uses frequent repetition of the title to depict the speaker’s confident tone. Despite its lack of formal structure, Angelou’s frequent use of rhyme and five-syllable phrases to describe the speaker’s qualities give the poem a musical rhythm.
“Phenomenal Woman” is often cited as one of the best poems in Angelou’s third volume of verse. Horn Book Magazine praises the volume as a whole for its “zest and style,” noting that this poem in particular is one of the strongest. Critic Harold Bloom describes the verse as a “hymn-like poem to woman’s beauty.” Angelou herself loved to recite this poem in public, and the verse has been featured in both films and advertisements. Many years after its initial publication, the poem remains a powerful testament to female power and a message to all women to love themselves and show the world their pride in who they are.