Still I Rise

Still I Rise Poetry as Performance—The Lyrical Power of Maya Angelou’s Verse

On April 4, 2018—what would have been Maya Angelou’s 90th birthday—Google celebrated the illustrious author and activist with a video featuring many celebrities reciting “Still I Rise.” The likes of media giant Oprah Winfrey, singer Alicia Keys, actress Laverne Cox, and Angelou’s own son, Guy Johnson, were featured in the video. The tribute is a testament to the power of Angelou’s poem that still resonates with people 40 years after it was first published.

Angelou loved to recite her work, and “Still I Rise” was among her favorite poems. Some critics even argue that her poetry has greater power when it is recited. Critic Janet Blundell, who reviewed the volume of poetry And Still I Rise, notes that the poems which most closely resemble speech patterns and songs are the most effective. Critic William Sylvester further adds that listening to her poetry allows us to better listen to ourselves and truly absorb the meaning of her words. Indeed, the repetition of key phrases combined with alliteration and assonance often give Angelou’s poems a musical quality. The poems are not necessarily intended to be performed, but when they are, they electrify an audience. Poems such as “Still I Rise” also touch upon the structure of hymns and meditations, evoking the chants of slaves as they worked in fields and came together to pray. While not usually considered a regional author—Angelou was, after all, a worldly woman who grew up in several American cities and lived in different countries—she nonetheless has come to represent the African-American experience of the Deep South since she spent her formative years there. She considered Stamps, Arkansas, her hometown, and the traditions her grandmother instilled in her, coupled with her firsthand experiences of racism and bigotry, made her a powerful witness to Southern culture and beliefs.

Angelou was invited to recite her work on numerous occasions. Most notably, she was asked to read her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in January 1993. In 2013, she wrote a poem of tribute for Nelson Mandela, “His Day Is Done,” upon his passing. Mandela had read Angelou’s books while in prison, and he had even recited “Still I Rise” at his presidential inauguration in 1994. Such is the power of Angelou’s poetry, and this poem in particular: a man who had been oppressed for so many years celebrated his freedom and victory and rose above his own pain by channeling Angelou’s words.

While Angelou’s poetry can resemble songs, it should also be noted that her verse and prose have inspired music as well. Alicia Keys’ song, “Caged Bird,” refers to the title of Angelou’s first autobiographical work and discusses themes of freedom and happiness. Tupac Shakur and Outlawz collaborated on the song, “Still I Rise,” featuring empowering lyrics about leaving one’s mark on history. Lastly, Angelou herself lent her voice to Common’s “The Dreamer,” inspiring people to follow their dreams. Read or recited, Angelou’s words speak to the soul.