A reviewer once said that this poem was only impactful when the poet read it aloud. Why might this be the case?
The poem is like a speech or a personal declaration of power. When it is read, the reader naturally concentrates on the rhyme scheme, the similes, and the general rhythm of the words on the page. Although we do see a story to the poem, we do not discern more power in one stanza compared to another. However, when Maya Angelou reads the poem aloud, she injects more power into it by changing the tone and the mood in her intonation and voice. Her voice gives additional power to the affirmation "I rise." Spoken aloud, the poem is more determined and more defiant. It becomes less a conversation and more a proclamation. It becomes a kind of prayer, meditation, and proclamation all at once.
Most of the stanzas begin with questions. Who do you think the poet is addressing and how do her questions change as the poem progresses?
The poem begins with the speaker asking questions of those who would still like to see her oppressed and who are not embracing equality between the races or the genders. She is initially puzzled by this, and by the third stanza her puzzlement has changed to anger, and instead of asking them to explain why they feel the way that they do, she is taunting them more and defying their attempts to keep her tied to the past and its history of oppression. The speaker begins the poem by casually questioning the object of the poem and then interrogating angrily. She essentially puts her oppressors on trial and finds them guilty right away. Once her rage climaxes in the eighth stanza, she ceases her questioning and instead affirms her resolve to conquer all the previous offenses she has outlined throughout the poem.
Who is the poet speaking for in the poem?
There is a double meaning to what the poet is saying throughout the poem. She is speaking for herself, affirming her pride in herself, her intention to honor her ancestors' sacrifice and affirming that whatever is done to try to hold her back, she will find a way to rise above it. However, she is not only speaking for herself, and the poem also tells those who want to go back to how things used to be, and who want to keep African Americans down, that whatever they do the tide has turned and that equality is a right. "I rise" speaks not only for the poet herself, as a personal affirmation, but also for the African American community and women who will fight for equality regardless of how many times oppressors try to take it from them.
How does the repetition of the phrase, "I rise," affect the tone and overall impact of the poem?
The various forms of this refrain ("I'll rise," "I rise") give the poem a determined and triumphant tone. One might argue that as an African American writer, Angelou chooses to repeat these words so as to mimic the songs, prayers, and meditations that so many slaves turned to when they were suffering. The repetition of a phrase gives it emphasis, and that is exactly what the poet/speaker is doing here. She is reemphasizing the fact that no matter what the oppressors do to her or to her people, she/they will rise above it all. Therefore, while the poem can sound provocative and angry in some places, the overall tone—especially in the last two stanzas—is a hopeful and joyous one, just as music and meditations often celebrate the joy of life.