Maya Angelou was born in 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. Angelou went on to become an actress, writer and speaker. She was a Civil Rights activist, and became one of the first successful female African American poets. She wrote about real life, controversial subjects and her own struggles and experiences. In the poem, “Men,” Angelou discusses emotions a young woman feels when it comes to her perceptions of men. It is an honest poem that many individuals could relate to.
Angelou begins the poem by bringing in some of her own experiences. She talks about staring out of the window as a teenage girl and watching men walk by.
Young men sharp as mustard.
See them. Men are always
They knew I was there. Fifteen
Years old and starving for them.
Angelou calls men, “sharp as mustard.” This is a great line, because it's so original. It's not a cliche. It also makes sense. Mustard has a sharp taste, and despite the fact that she loves it, it can still be a little sour. She also says that men “are always going somewhere.” Men come and they go, but they don’t stay, because they have somewhere else to go. In the next two lines, Angelou talks about how men took advantage of her innocence and vulnerability. She was young and “starving for them.” They were aware of this and used it to their advantage. At the end of the stanza Angelou writes,
Their shoulders high like the
Breasts of a young girl
This may be referencing status and how men were often perceived as the better sex. They are confident, and walk with their shoulders high, as if they are superior. They also place importance on the “breasts of a young girl.” It’s not her personality or humor that’s important, but her physical features. This subject was a courageous thing to write about in this time period, and her honesty was one of the qualities that made Angelou a brilliant poet.
In the second portion of the poem, Angelou describes what happens in a relationship. It begins innocently as “they hold you in the/Palms of their hands, gentle, as if you/Were the last raw egg in the world.” Angelou uses a great metaphor here when she compares a young girl to a raw egg. A raw egg is in its natural form and unfertilized, but soon “The hurt begins. Wrench out a/Smile that slides around the fear. When the/Air disappears.”
As the relationship progresses, the man takes control and the woman begins to lose herself in him. Angelou describes this as, “your juice/That runs down their legs. Staining their shoes.” What once belonged to the female is now part of the male. The woman loses her identity as a man takes her insides, what she was made of, and walks all over it. This stanza was probably the most descriptive, honest and creative part of the poem. Angelou ends the stanza with the lines,
Your body has slammed shut. Forever.
No keys exist.
After the woman loses so much of herself, she becomes closed off, and is unable to let anyone else in, for a little while at least. "Slammed" was also an effective word choice. It conveys violence, brutality and hurt.
In the final stanza, Angelou ends the poem in a manner that was similar to the beginning. A young girl is once again staring out her window as men walk by. Only now, the girl has learned her lesson and says, “But this time, I will simply/Stand and watch.” The very last line of the poem is one word that speaks volumes. “Maybe.”
Maybe she will avoid men, but probably not. She will fall in love once again and it could be a better relationship, or it could end in heartbreak. But it’s what will happen because that’s what women do. It’s almost as if they can’t help themselves from falling for “Men.”
Maya Angelou continues to be known as an original poet who broke barriers. She was even nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, as well as a National Book Award for her work. More recently, she has traveled the country as a speaker, and taught classes at the university level. She brought honesty, sincerity and artistic creativity to her work. She dared to go where other writers hadn’t gone. Angelou is a woman who changed the history of literature and what it stood for.