Rhyme is a technique that often lends a singsong quality to a poem. Angelou’s use of rhyme in much of her poetry is one aspect critics tend to criticize because they believe it makes her poetry sound juvenile.
Angelou’s use of rhyme in the first 14 lines of ‘‘Woman Work,’’ however, is appropriate and underscores the meaning behind the stanza. By developing the stanza using rhyming couplets (every pair of lines rhymes), the poem shows that the work is mundane. That rhyming quality makes the stanza seem more like a list whose items must be checked off every day. The woman’s frustration can be felt as she reels off the list of activities she must complete.
Rhyme is used but more loosely in the four shorter stanzas and not to the same effect. Instead, the end rhyme is a means of pulling together each stanza to present a complete image in the reader’s mind.
Imagery is descriptive language that evokes a sensory (sight, smell, taste, sight, and sound) experience. The poem’s four shorter stanzas, in which the speaker refers to nature and its elements, uses imagery to convey meaning. For example, in the third stanza, lines 19–22, she uses words and phrases that force the reader to envision what is happening: storm, blow, fiercest wind, float.
Likewise, lines 23–26 rely on imagery: Snowflakes fall gently, giving cold, icy kisses. The reader can actually see these images as the speaker describes them.
Angelou does not use a consistent rhythm throughout the poem or even throughout each stanza, but she uses it in much the same way she does rhyme: to underscore the meaning of her message.
In lines 1–14, the lines are relatively short—4 to 7 syllables. Nearly every word in those lines is one syllable. These two features considered together give the stanza a choppy feel, even as the aforementioned rhyme lends a singsong quality. The brevity of both words and line length add to that feeling of the speaker checking off each activity as its listed or reeling off the (seemingly) endless list quickly before she forgets something.
Repetition is used only in the first 14 lines. Like the rhyme and rhythm techniques, this repetition lends itself well to the point of the stanza. Lines 1, 7, 9, and 12 begin with some form of the word ‘‘I,’’ a reminder that the speaker is burdened with this laundry list of chores. Lines 2, 3, 4, 8, 10, and 11 begin with ‘‘the.’’ Again, this repetition adds to the singsong rhythm that serves this stanza so well. Lines 5, 6, and 13 begin with ‘‘then.’’ First the speaker must do this, this, and this, and then she must do that, that, and that. Repetition emphasizes the endlessness of the responsibilities shouldered by the woman.
Alliteration is the repetition of consonants, and Angelou employs alliteration all the way through the first stanza, or 14 lines. She uses hard consonant sounds, primarily ‘‘c’’ and ‘‘t.’’ These give a harsh, angry tone to the words of the stanza. This harshness is emphasized by the short length of the words: tots, cane, cut, hut, sick, pick, mop, shop.
Objects are personified when they are given human characteristics. Although Angelou does not use personification very much, she does use it when talking about the woman’s interactions with nature.
In lines 17 and 18, the dewdrops cool her brow. Usually, the idea of cooling one’s brow involves one person comforting another. In lines 23–25, the snowflakes cover the woman with kisses. Again, this is an act of comfort, one usually involving humans.
This use of personification emphasizes the important role nature plays in the speaker’s life. Nature relieves and comforts, restores and provides. It acts as a sort of soul mate in the life of a woman who has spoken not one word of having a partner or husband or even friend.
All of the style techniques mentioned previously are more obvious if the reader reads this poem aloud. Angelou writes in the oral tradition, meaning she intends for her work to be spoken aloud. By speaking the lines, the reader more clearly hears the rhythm, the rhyme, the repetition, and alliteration. Sounds of letters and words support the imagery. The combination of sound and voice intonation brings this particular poem to life.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Maya Angelou, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010.