There are four parts to And Still I Rise, by Maya Angelou, the first of which is named Touch Me, Life, Not Softly, and contains eight different poems. Here, I will use these poems to explore the possibilities as to the origins of the title of the first section of the anthology.
The ‘touch me’ part of the phrase can be very ambiguous, as it could signify the way in which there has been physical touching, or being touched in an emotional or mental way, for example, being moved to tears. The latter could then be incorporated into saying the author feels life should affect her deeply, as also illustrated with ‘not softly,’ which is a theme heavily referred to in this first section.
The very first poem of the anthology is A Kind of Love, Some Say, which explores physical abuse within a relationship, and the way the abused partner feels there is still love between the couple, as shown with, ‘Sorry eyes, spoke not/ Of lost romance, but hurt.’ The idea of life touching people is seen here, as the physical abuse in the poem will surely affect the person in question deeply, not only in life in general, but through all of their future and present relationships. Our relationships with other people are a very large part of our lives, therefore the abused partner’s life could be said to change forever, as they may find it very hard to trust people ever again, or find it hard to relate to people.
In A Kind of Love, Some Say there is also the phrase ‘Love by nature, exacts a pain,’ showing how Angelou feels life itself makes love hard, in a way that cannot be matched by anything else – ‘Unequalled on the rack.’ This also relates back to the way life touches people, in a way nothing else can.
The next poem is Country Lover, looks at the way men can often be seen to be very careless and lack value for women throughout life, as seen with the capital letters used throughout the poem, and the very specific parts of the man’s night (‘Funky blues,’ ‘High water pants’), and then the final line of ‘and anybody’s daughter,’ which lacks the capital letters or the specific woman in question, instead implying the man does not care who he goes home with, as long as there is someone. As this subject can be linked to all generations of men throughout the world, it strongly reflects how life can touch people, as there are many, many women who will have been affected by a similar situation, and not in a positive way, as they may feel they are lacking importance in life, as the word ‘anybody’s’ implies there is really no significance as to who the woman is. This could deeply affect women, as they may go through life feeling inferior to men and therefore possibly not making as much of themselves as they could.
The third poem, Remembrance, focuses on the subject of sex, but rather than the actual act, the more intimate parts of making love, such as the foreplay and the aftermath. However, the title of the poem, Remembrance, also shows how Angelou feels her favourite part of the sexual intercourse is afterwards, when her partner has left, and it is ‘then, only/ then, can I greedily consume/ your presence.’ This illustrates how she does not feel emotionally stable until this point, and it is at this point she can fully take in the ‘magic’ of the experience. Sex is another part of life that often deeply affects people in very different ways, for instance, in the way they view the experience, or the way particular sexual encounters have affected them in the past. It is definitely not something that would touch someone ‘softly.’
Where We Belong, A Duet is the fourth poem, and looks at the way people in the world appear to always be searching for a soulmate, throughout life – ‘Then I went to schoolrooms/ And poolrooms/ And half-lighted cocktail bars.’ Love, of course, plays a major part in everyone’s life, whether it is the platonic, unconditional or romantic kind, and therefore obviously can affect people very deeply, like with the sex in the above poem, due to past encounters, or the way they view love. Again, like sex, love is not a subject to be viewed lightly, as it can be said to affect everything in life.
Next we have Phenomenal Woman, which explores the way Angelou and other people view her, and how she feels you do not have to be ‘cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size’ in order to be a successful woman in life. Instead, the poet feels it is not what you’ve got, but what you do with it, for example ‘the fire in my eyes,’ or ‘the ride of my breasts.’ Our lives are often much affected by the way we are viewed and also view ourselves, as it can affect everything, from the way we act around certain people, to the way we treat certain situations. Life itself can also affect the above factors, as we are often shaped by the events we experience. This is therefore a strong example of how life can touch someone, not softly.
Men looks at the experience of a young girl, through a sexual encounter, possibly viewed as rape or the loss of virginity – ‘Shattered./ It is your juice/ That runs down their legs.’ – and how she feels about it; in this case, not very positive, as shown with the aforementioned quote, and also, ‘Your mind pops, exploding fiercely,’ and ‘Your body has slammed shut. Forever.’ As mentioned with Remembrance, it is most often experience that shapes who we are and how we feel and react to certain situations. Both the loss of virginity and rape are very serious matters, especially the latter, and so are very likely to affect people in strong ways. ‘Touch me, life, not softly’ therefore relates to this strongly, as no one who ever as been raped could say it was a ‘light experience’ or that they have not been touched by it in some way, as it is highly likely to have been a very negative experience.
The penultimate poem is Refusal, focusing on the plight of a woman on her death bed, who ‘will not deign to die’ unless she knows the partner she adores will be with her in her future lives, as she feels he has been in her ‘other lives and lands.’ ‘I defy my body’s haste’ is a key phrase of the poem, as the word ‘defy’ is very strong and shows just how much the woman in question does not want to let go without knowing she will see her greatest love again. Refusal implies that it is not just life that touches us, not softly, but also the people we meet throughout life, as she is so enamoured by her love that she never wants to leave him, even after death, so he has clearly had a very large impact upon her life. The fact that she appears to believe in reincarnation – ‘That we will meet again,/ On other worlds some/ Future time undated.’ – shows how she believes her love will prevail all, if she can meet her soulmate again and again in many different lives. Therefore, life can also touch us deeply through the people we are deigned to meet throughout our course upon earth, and the ways in which they affect us.
The final poem is Just for a Time, looking at past relationships and how despite not liking reminiscing about past events, the narrator still does this and looks at the ways he loved his girl. While the first two stanzas reminisce about the past love, the final stanza explores how the narrator feels now, ‘I don’t spill tears/ On yesterday’s years/ But honesty makes me say,/ You were a precious pearl.’ Again, it is often our relationships throughout life that very strongly affect the way we react to and feel about things as we are touched by, not softly.
Overall, I believe that the first section of Maya Angelou’s poetry anthology is called Touch Me, Life, Not Softly as all of the poems mentioned above focus on events and experiences in life that shape us strongly, and imply that life does not let us get away with things easily. However, as Angelou appears to be telling life to do this to her, she is saying, that without life demanding so much from us and affecting us so wholly, we would not be the people we are, and would possibly be not as strong as we are.