Maya Angelou had a powerful voice and a way of finding her target with very few words. The title of her autobiographical book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is a prime example. In just those seven words she has made a strong statement about life and living. That title could almost qualify as a poem, except that it does not say enough. However, it does say volumes about her attitude.
The image which we, the readers, see is that of a bird in a cage sorrowfully singing until we read her poem, The Caged Bird. Generally we see a beautiful bird, because we feel empathy with the bird, so it must be beautiful. Then we see the bird too large for a small cage, because we invent more hardship than there is in our need to create tragedy from this image. This title is compelling in that way and we feel great desire to read this book.
In her poem, The Caged Bird, Maya Angelou starts with a verse about the free bird “leaping on the back of the wind” and “floating downstream” then he “dips his wing in the orange sun rays and dares to claim the sky”. This bird is powerful and yet he need not exert the slightest effort once he is on the back of the wind and we can see him in our minds as he become s huge silhouette against the sunset, wheeling around and finally taking over the sky as we see only this bird. The sky is so huge as to seem eternal and he “claims” it like a warrior’s prize.
Then she introduces the caged bird stalking a narrow cage and we suddenly see the parallel with man as the bars of the cage become bars of rage that blinds him. Next we see his wings are clipped, so he could not fly even if he was free. His feet are tied and he is truly a prisoner. The last line of this verse creates a dual image as he “opens his throat to sing”. One of the most common uses of the first part of the phrase creates and image of cutting one’s throat and we can imagine blood streaming as he sings.
In the third verse we hear the “fearful trill” of his singing of “things unknown” and she says it is heard on a distant hill as he sings for freedom (which he has never known). In the next two four line verses the poet compares the free and the caged bird and ends with the same line, “so he opens his throat to sing.”
The poem ends with a repetition of the third verse finishing with the line, “the caged bird sings of freedom.” This poem is, of itself, a metaphor for people who struggle against limitations that hold them in place as surely as the bonds of the caged bird. The clipped wings being ways in which talent is prevented from being used. The bound feet keep the person in one place, their place as defined by the people who tied the knot. These people bleed figuratively in an effort to escape their cage and they sing in desperation, in spite of the cost, because they can.
It is a powerful image of the bird with bound feet, clipped wings and caged that he makes a joyous sound of singing of freedom in spite of the pain that brings, and he does it merely because it is the one thing he can still do.
What is most important about this poem is that the imagery is so strong that anyone can respond to it. It is not necessary to take it all apart as I have done. It simply has an effect without any analysis at all. The key is the layering of strong images and that final double entendre image of ‘opening his throat’ to sing. We know that the poet means that the bird flexes the muscles to widen the vocal cavity, but we cannot escape the other image of blood flowing from it as he sings and we react. Maya Angelou has touched us once again from beyond the grave.