What Makes A Line Memorable?

In keeping with my melancholy theme from my previous post, I want to consider how a simple arrangement of words can lift us up. Words have power, and that power is always magnified by the power of a competent wordsmith.

So, if we find ourselves in the doldrums, we may find comfort in knowing that we can rise. This is what Maya Angelou did; despite all the odds stacked against her, “still,” she said, “I rise.”

Think about the power behind that one line, “still I rise.” We don’t just feel it; we hear it in her deep, rooted voice: “Still I Rise.” It stirs something deep inside us, perhaps a little hope or, at the very least, faith that our descent will stop. When we are scraping the bottom of the barrel, and we keep taking hit after hit, Angelou wants us to say it slowly: Still-We-Rise.

The power of that one line is so rooted that it is soul-shakingly necessary to have in our vocabulary, in our lists of aphorisms we tell ourselves to get through hard times. The line is so powerful that it overwhelms the rest of the poem, but Angelou’s poem deserves to be read in its entirety.

Most people know the first stanza of the poem:

You may write me down in history,
With your bitter, and twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt,
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

This poem was written in 1978, and it makes sense to think of this poem as an answer to the persecution that made the Civil Rights Movements and the Feminist Movements necessary. Angelou was active in both movements, and she understood more work needed to be done.

Eight years before the poem’s release, Gil-Scott Heron said “the revolution will not be televised” and four years after the poem’s publication, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five introduced their own brand of poetry into the world saying, “It’s like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from going under.”

In all cases, the issues or concerns that we need to rise above are external; they are outside forces working on us. There is, however, another way to consider this stanza.

How about using this stanza as a way to refute the inner monologue we have going that says we are worthless, failures, or losers. Good writing is malleable to experience. Sometimes all we need to rise above our own mental limitations and lamentations is a good word. Further, further, further still, what happens to us externally always affects us internally.

Angelou’s next two stanza’s address this:

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll Rise.

Place-hood is as ubiquitous as self-hood. I recently wrote a piece about the detention of refugees in camps along the Texas border. In that article, I called attention to a 1975 Arizona Supreme Court ruling that said,

While detention and investigation based on ethnic background alone would be arbitrary and capricious and therefore impermissible, the fact that a person is obviously out of place in a particular neighborhood is one of several factors that may be considered by an officer and the court in determining whether an investigation and detention is reasonable and therefore lawful.

“Obviously out of place…”

The bigger picture here is that we are always thinking about place-hood. That boy over there needs to know his place. That girl is speaking out of turn. Those people don’t belong in this neighborhood. It’s encoded in our legal and political dealings with each other, so of course, it trickles down into how we interact with each other socially.

We believe that someone does not have the right to hold their head up and square their shoulders. That woman over there, with her overweight body and short, uncombed hair, does not have the right to feel sassy or sexy. That rich boy does not have the right to listen to songs about the hood, and that hood-boy does not have the right to sit at the rich boy’s table.

Everyone is always telling us to know our place. Angelou says here, we don’t have to because as sure as the tides ebb and flow, we will rise.

But Angelou does not stop there. She goes on to ask questions of her persecutor:

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries.

If we are continuing with the inner monologue theme I introduced earlier, consider this as well as the question of place-hood as a dialogue with yourself. How do you want to be? How do you want to be seen? Where do you want to be? Where do you want to be seen?

Make no mistake, some people want to see others as miserable as they are. Some people are in so much pain that they want to share it with everyone in the only way they know how: to stomp out another person’s happiness.

The perversity of watching someone fail and fall can animate others. Social media is full of this. Someone takes a picture of another at their lowest point and posts it online to get a few laughs. Unfortunately, broken people have become entertainment for some.

Perhaps it is because people are so entertained by the trials of others that they need to see them broken. It is the story of Job replayed and repackaged for a different era. As those hard times pile up, people gather around to question the faith, the strength, and the struggle of trying to hold on. “Give up and turn it all loose,” they say. But just like Job said, “though they slay me, yet will I trust,” Angelou says here,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I rise.

This is the rope, extended to anyone willing to grab hold, that can pull us out of the melancholy muck. What makes this poem work is that it is movable; that is, the poem has rhythm enough that you feel as if you are in the process of rising as you read each line.

The heart grows weary with living sometimes. A misstep here or there can have far-reaching consequences, but sometimes those missteps can lead to greater things.

Angelou’s poem makes us feel like we are walking down a crowded street growing taller, braver, and stronger with each step. This is the power of a wordsmith who was excellent at her craft.

So the knowledge we can take away from this, then, is that no matter the battle or what direction it is coming from, we need to continue to rise. The call to action embedded in the line is what makes it memorable.


To get the rest of Angelou’s poem, go to Poetry Foundation.org

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