I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
by Maya Angelou
Analysis: Writing Style
Intimate, Writerly, Descriptive
Then and Now
We have an announcement.
Adult Maya is telling us a story about kid Maya.
Okay, so maybe that's not news. But we need to keep it in mind when thinking about Angelou's writing style. After all, we're reading a story about a kid, and the advanced vocabulary and complex prose can really throw us off.
While Maya the kid is silent for much of the novel, Maya the author/narrator is always doing literary handstands, continually pulling out literary devices and ornate prose from her bag of tricks:
Oh, Black known and unknown poets, how often have your auctioned pains sustained us? Who will compute the lonely nights made less lonely by your songs, or the empty pots made less tragic by your tales? (23.66)
Does that sound like it came from the pen of an eighth grader? Or more like an author who will be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom?
There is one thing that reminds us that Maya the author was once Maya the kid: she's really bad at keeping secrets. We hear all of her young thoughts, and she relates them all to us conversationally. For example, when Mr. Taylor comes to the Store, we can just feel her little girl frustration: "Oh, Lord, a ghost story" (22.30). It's kind of like we're Maya's friend and she's giving us the play-by-play. A play-by-play that we need a dictionary to read, but still.
Mara Angelou is a storyteller. And one thing that every good storyteller needs to be able to do is describe. And describe she does:
Unlike the white high school, Lafayette Country Training School distinguished itself by having neither lawn, nor hedges, nor tennis court, nor climbing ivy. Its two buildings (main classrooms, the grade school and home economics) were set on a dirt hill with no fence to limit either its expands to the left of the school which was used alternately as a baseball diamond or a basketball court. Rusty hoops on the swaying poles represented the permanent recreational equipment, although bats and balls could be borrowed from the P.E. teacher if the borrower was qualified and if the diamond wasn't occupied (23.2).
That's quite an info drop for a setting that we barely get to know in the book. But if we look closely, this paragraph is loaded with importance. Just those first words—"unlike the white high school"—let us know that we should break out the highlighters. This might be a paragraph about a school, but it's also a paragraph about race.
That's the thing about Maya Angelou: she never wastes her words. Her prose is beautiful and might seem flowery ("Over this rocky area relieved by a few shady tall persimmon trees the graduating class walked" [23.3]), but everything she writes, she writes for a reason. It's up to you to decide the reason.