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Sample Poem Analysis from an ESL Student's Perspective
Poetry is a complex form of art that utilizes literary devices and contains different meanings relative to its readers. Analyzing poems is a good way for ESL students to develop a better understanding of the English language. Their analyses will allow them to exercise their skills regarding interpretations, critical thinking, context clues, and comprehension. English instructors can utilize poem analysis as a way for students to learn about the various elements of the English language. This paper will enumerate different methods for poem analysis and provide an example of an analysis.
Methods for Analyzing Poems
ESL students can employ different methods in poem analysis depending on their current skills and fluency. The most straightforward methods in analyzing poems are identifying imagery, symbols, tones, storyline, rhyming scheme, structure, and types. Identifying these elements will allow an individual to establish an understanding of some of the poem’s meaning and structure. Each poem is unique and while some may share similar tones and imagery, the other elements may imply a different meaning. Aside from the straightforward methods, ESL students can read a poem multiple times, analyze the title, consider the speaker’s perspective, and paraphrase the poem (TeachForAmerica.org). These methods will require the students to view the poem as a whole and consider different perspectives. Methods, like paraphrasing and rereading, are effective ways for a reader to examine each stanza and establish an interpretation of the message. Additionally, students may include a brief background of the author and the situation that led to the creation of the poem.
Poem Analysis of Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise”
Maya Angelou was a poet, dancer, singer, activist, and scholar that focused on fighting against discrimination. Angelou was a black woman whose ancestors were slaves during the early parts of American history. This led her to dedicate her literary works to sending messages against slavery, discrimination, and other injustices. “Still I Rise” is one of Angelou’s literary works that speak clearly about discrimination and the ability of victims to triumph over injustices.
“Still I Rise” contains nine stanzas with each containing messages that the speaker is directly conveying to the reader. Through the poem, one can infer that the speaker in the poem is talking to racists, slavers, and other individuals that look down on black people. Some of the stanzas aim to antagonize the listener while others illustrate the perseverance of the speaker. The speaker also repeats the phrase “still I rise” throughout the poem, suggesting that it is the main point of the piece.
The first stanza of the poem introduces the reader to the thesis of the piece. Angelou illustrates the injustice that black people experienced through the line “you may trod me in the very dirt”. Angelou uses the terms “trod” and “dirt” to portray the image of a black individual laying on the ground. Additionally, the first two lines of the poem convey the message that history books may antagonize black people through “bitter, twisted lies”. These lines imply that society may perceive black people as bad or inferior due to misinformation. Angelou then ends the first stanza with the line “but still, like dust, I’ll rise” which suggests that despite misinformation and injustices, black people will rise. It is important to note here that while Angelou uses the singular pronoun “I”, she is referring to the black community as a whole. This premise is consistent throughout the poem and an integral part of understanding its message.
The second, fifth, and seventh stanzas contain similar patterns, literary devices, and messages. In these stanzas, the speaker is directly talking to racists and asking them why they are upset about the success of black people. Angelou utilized the adjectives “sassiness”, “haughtiness”, and “sexiness” to describe the positive qualities of black people. Later in the stanzas, she used the terms “oil wells”, “gold mines”, and “diamonds” to portray the success that black people have achieved and that racists are mad about. These stanzas showcase the fighting spirit of the speaker or black people. They indicate that black people possess beauty, pride, confidence, and wealth. The antagonizing tone of the stanzas portrays the triumph of the speaker over the injustices and discrimination that their people experienced.
In the third stanza, Angelou establishes the premise that the triumph of black people over discrimination is certain. She uses similes to compare the act of triumph to the consistency of natural bodies. She compared the triumph to the “moons” that always appear at night, to the “suns” that rise during the morning, to the “tides” that continuously move on the water’s surface, and to “hopes” that always refer to ambition. In this stanza, Angelou uses the word “certainty” to clearly state that the success of black people is inevitable despite the injustices they face. The stanza ends with the poem’s title “still I’ll rise” which concludes the stanza’s premise of certain triumph.
The fourth stanza describes the expectations of racists towards the condition of black people. Angelou wrote, “do you want to see me broken? bowed head and lowered eyes? shoulders falling down like teardrops, weakened by my soulful cries?”. Through these lines, she painted the image of a defeated and hopeless individual. “Bowed head and lowered eyes” may imply slaves submitting to their masters. “Shoulders falling down” portrays a frail body that lacks nutrients and spirit. “Weakened by my soulful cries” illustrates a suffering and hopeless individual. Additionally, the stanza established a tone where the speaker is asking the listener if the morbid imagery is their expectation. This tone indicates that the current condition of black people is the opposite of the morbid imagery. The speaker did not feel broken, submissive, hopeless, and weak but instead; feel powerful and proud.
In the sixth stanza, Angelou establishes the resolve and willpower of the speaker. She utilized the phrases “shoot me with your words”, “cut me with your eyes”, and kill me with your hatefulness” to indicate the discrimination and injustices that black people experience. Angelou used the words “shoot”, “cut”, and “kill” to express aggressive and harmful actions towards black people. However, since she paired these words with “words”, “eyes”, and “hatefulness”; this indicates that the harmful actions are not only physical acts but abstract means. “Shoot me with your words” implies that racists speak ill of black people. “Cut me with your eyes” illustrate judging eyes that look down on slaves and black people. “Kill me with your hatefulness” suggest that the innate perception of racists towards black people is fatal. These phrases, along with the tone of the stanza, express the success of black people despite the harmful actions of racists.
The eighth stanza describes the painful life of slaves and their collective power. Angelou used the phrases “huts of history’s shame” and “a past that’s rooted in pain” to depict the shameful act of slavery which modern society perceives as inhumane and unjust. The word “hut” may refer to the slave huts which acted as shelters for slaves in plantations. The “past rooted in paint” refers to the suffering of the slave. These lines paint the image of the poor condition that slaves experienced in cramped and small huts. After describing this imagery, Angelou then writes a statement that portrays the power of the black community. She describes the community as a “black ocean, leaping and wide” which suggests that the community is a powerful force of nature that is difficult to stop. The phrase “welling and swelling” at the end of the stanza suggests that the community continuously grows. The eighth stanza is Angelou’s statement that together, the black community can achieve anything.
In the last stanza, Angelou concludes the poem with the message of moving on and finding hope. Angelou expressed the message of moving on through the lines “leaving behind nights of terror and fear” and “Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear”. These lines show the image of passing nighttime and a sun rising, which implies that the speaker is letting go of their fears and is ready for a new beginning. The lines “bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave” and “I am the dream and the hope of the slave” refer to the sacrifices that the slaves made to ensure the safety of their children. The term “gifts” in the line refers to these sacrifices and the word “I” refers to the next generation of free black people.
Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” is a message to individuals that view black people as inferior human beings. The poem speaks out against discrimination and expresses the fact that the black community is a powerful force capable of success. The poem portrayed images of slaves and the painful lives they suffered under their masters. It illustrated the negative perception of certain groups towards the black community. Along with these portrayals, the poem showcased the strengths and hopes of the black community. It described appealing characteristics and established the message of relentless hope. “Still I Rise” is the black community’s testament to surpassing suffering and rising above injustices.
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Angelou, Maya. "Still I Rise." Poetry Foundation, 2020, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46446/still-i-rise. Accessed December 12, 2021
Corfman, Allisa. "Still I Rise by Maya Angelou". Poem Analysis. https://poemanalysis.com/maya-angelou/still-i-rise/. Accessed December 14, 2021.
TeachForAmerica. “How to Analyze a Poem in 6 Steps.” TeachForAmerica, 2016, https://www.teachforamerica.org/stories/how-to-analyze-a-poem-in-6-steps . Accessed December 13, 2021.