Maya Angelou’s ‘When I Think About Myself’ is a thoughtful and important poem about the way one speaker handles the darkest parts of her life.
Throughout ‘When I Think About Myself’ readers will find themselves confronted with images of oppression and control as described in Angelou’s well-known style. She uses techniques like repetition and enjambment in order to create a pattern to her poem without controlling it with a strict rhyme scheme.
Explore When I Think About Myself
The speaker spends the poem creating allusions suggesting the nature of her life while also “laughing” at its facts. She is likely an enslaved person or is living a comparable life where she is at the beck and call of a family, including a child. She laughs at her situation and her suffering as if trying to come to terms with it but being unable to. She laughs at the lives of her people and the scraps they get from the work they complete. While it’s easy to simply equate this poem to slavery in the United States, it’s also important to consider how these lines suggest the African American community today. Angelou wants readers to think deeply about the long-lasting consequences of these attitudes.
In ‘When I Think About Myself,’ the poet engages with themes of oppression and life, among others. She alludes to, without directly stating, the oppressed nature of her life and the lives of her people. She’s in a situation that is dark and seemingly inescapable. She uses words like “death” and “choke” alongside “laugh” to try to describe what her world is like and how she makes it through the day. Readers should also take the time to consider the strength of this speaker and how she shows it through her words.
Structure and Form
‘When I Think About Myself’ by Maya Angelou is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of seven lines. These lines do not make use of a specific rhyme scheme but there are very clear uses of rhyme in each. For example, in stanza one lines three, five, and six all rhyme with the end words “joke,” “spoke,” and “choke.” In the second stanza, the same lines rhyme with the words “sake,” “break,” and “ache.” In the third stanza, it changes and the first and second lines rhyme with “side” and “died” and lines three and six rhyme with “lying” and “crying.” It should also be noted that the use of the refrain, “When I think about myself,” creates what’s known as a perfect rhyme. “Myself” ends lines one and seven of the first stanza and line seven of the second stanza.
Angelou makes use of several literary devices in ‘When I Think About Myself.’ These include but are not limited to enjambment, alliteration, and juxtaposition. The first of these is a common formal device that occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural conclusion. For example, the transition between lines four and five of the first stanza as well as lines one and two of the second stanza. In both of these instances, as well as in others, the poet forces the reader to jump down to the next line to find out how the previous concluded.
Alliteration is another common device, one that occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “laugh” and “life” in lines two and three of the first stanza as well as “proud” and “poor” in lines four and five of the second stanza.
Juxtaposition occurs when the poet places two contrasting images, feelings, or experiences alongside one another. In this case, Angelou brings together sorrow/death and laughter. She creates a powerful image of her speaker’s life through this combination.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
When I think about myself,
I laugh so hard I almost choke
When I think about myself.
In the first stanza of ‘When I Think About Myself,’ the speaker begins by using the time that later came to be used as the title of the poem. It is also the refrain, appearing again at the end of the first and second stanzas. When the speaker thinks about her life, which she later compares to a dance and a song, she feels that it’s some sort of “joke.” She can’t stop laughing when she looks over what she’s done. She almost laughs herself “to death.”
There is a skillful use of juxtaposition in these lines that make the poem disturbing and troubling to read. The poet’s speaker compares laughing with death and choking. These things are quite dark, especially when compared with laugher. At this point though, it’s unclear why she’s laughing at her life or thinking about death.
Lines four and five are also noteworthy. She compares her life to a “dance that’s walked” and “a song that’s spoke.” Her life has not been what it should’ve been, joyous things like dancing and singing have been reduced down to walking and speaking.
Sixty years in these folks’ world
I laugh until my stomach ache,
When I think about myself.
In the second stanza, the speaker goes on to refer to her age, “sixty,” and to mention “these folks’ world.” This line makes it clear that the speaker feels like an outsider in her life. She’s degraded and controlled by others, as the next lines assert. She works in a home for a child who “calls” her “girl.” This disturbing phrase, when considered along with the bulk of Angelou’s other works, evokes an image of Black enslavement at the hands of white Europeans and Americans.
She uses the word “ma’am” when addressing this child who can tell her what to do because that’s what the world demands. She does it for “working’s sake.” She’s beyond being broken or bent though, she adds. She’s too proud and too poor for either.
My folks can make me split my side,
I laughed so hard I nearly died,
When I think about my folks.
In the final lines of the poem, the speaker broadens her laughter to include her “folks,” or Black men and women whose lives are very much like her own. She laughs so much at the thought of them that she “nearly died” and split her “side.” Their world is absurd in a way that is in this moment depicted by a woman laughing at the horror. The laughing might also be interpreted as a way of trying to break up the darkness with joy (albeit joy that doesn’t appear to actually exist).
The lines “they grow the fruit, / But eat the rinds” is also quite evocative. It alludes to the labor her “folks” engage in and how they receive none of the benefits. They’re left with the scraps.
Readers who enjoyed ‘When I Think About Myself’ should also consider reading some of Maya Angelou’s other poems. For example:
- ‘Caged Bird’—is an eye-opening poem that references the poet’s own autobiography.
- ‘Equality’ — is evocative of a great deal of Angelou’s work. It deals with topics of understanding another’s life and the future.
- ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’ —was published in 1993 and speaks on themes of fear and overcoming those fears in everyday life.