As the National Poetry Month celebrations continue, it’s important to highlight the extraordinary influence female poets have had on our literary culture. Early codes of feminine behavior did not encourage women to express their personal passions, desires, and reflections through writing. Though women have written poetry for ages, it wasn’t until the first wave of the women’s movement in the twentieth century that female poets began to use their platform as a way to vocalize their ambitions and address social and political issues.
As women continue to speak their truth, we want to shed light on twelve female poets that have had a lasting impact on world literature.
Though Sylvia Plath’s body of work is slender due to the tragic shortness of her life, her legacy today is enormous. Known for her confessional style of poetry, Plath is a pioneer of her craft. Her work is raw and painfully honest, inspiring countless other artists to showcase vulnerability through their own work. Plath recognized the societal expectations of a 1950’s female and was not afraid to speak out against issues of patriarchy and stifling domesticity. Between her poetry, journals, and an autobiographical novel, Plath illuminates how individual experiences can translate into cultural statements.
Often referred to as “The People’s Poet,” Maya Angelou is one of the most notable African American women of the twentieth century. Her multifaceted career and unparalleled accomplishments break all boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality. As an integral part of the civil rights movement, Angelou worked closely with both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. She has spoken out about everyday injustice, violence, and oppression, giving rise to so many others who have been silenced by society. With her tremendous influence on generations of Americans, Angelou is a literary treasure who will truly be missed.
One of the most original American poets to have ever picked up a pen, Emily Dickinson wrote hundreds of spare, haunting, and unforgettable poems—most of which were not published until after her death. Instead of traditional rhyme schemes and punctuation, Dickinson used broken meter, idiosyncratic capitalization, and sporadic dashes to convey rich, complex layers of thought and emotion. Though Dickinson was reclusive by nature, her brilliant mind and expansive imagination allowed her confront the greatest of themes: inevitability of death, the aches of human longing, and the joys of the natural world.
Anne Bradstreet ranks as the first true American poet, man or woman. Having sailed to America aboard the Arbella in 1630, Bradstreet was among the earliest settlers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. She became a chief voice of the great Puritan migration to the New World. Bradstreet’s poetry explores subjects such as birth, death, her love for her family, and her love for God. Her poetry reflects the deeply unfamiliar landscape of life in the early American colonies. Bradstreet’s poetry provides significant historical insight into the lives of the earliest Puritan settlers and establishes her title as the first poet of the New World.
Kidnapped from West Africa and enslaved in Boston, Phillis Wheatley became the first African American—and one of the first women—to publish a book of poetry in the colonies. The family she was sold to taught her how to read, write, and speak English, providing all the necessary tools for a classical education. Wheatley began composing poetry around the age of thirteen and was often called upon by her family to share her work at social gatherings. Her poetry possess strong religious underpinnings, but, like the work of the neoclassical poets of her day, it remains formally controlled and emotionally reserved. Ultimately, Wheatley’s work is amongst the first evidence of writing that reveals race consciousness, which stemmed from her role as a slave in society.
Best known for her lyrical style of urban verse, Gwendolyn Brooks wrote poetry that highlights the problems of African American youths in the mid-twentieth century. In 1950, she became the first African American, male or female, to win the Pulitzer Prize. Brooks was one of the champions of the “black aesthetic,” a movement in the 1960s to promote and encourage black separatism. Throughout her career, she was vocal about issues in her community as well as the national social stigmas associated with being young and black in America.
With a commitment to human rights and progressivism, June Jordan emerged as one of the leading political poets of the late sixties. Her poetry is autobiographical, drawing on her pursuit of justice and her search for identity in a culture quick to suppress outspoken individuals. Her work is unapologetic, honest, and deeply reflective of the issues of her era. She often uses vernacular English to discuss topics of sexuality, racial inequality, and political oppression. In addition to her poetry, she produced several novels, children’s books, and dramatic pieces.
Outspoken and controversial, Dorothy Parker became a popular twentieth-century writer. As a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, she was famous for hosting the wittiest of debates and conversations. Her poetry reveals her caustic wit and sharp eye for human foibles. In addition to verse, Parker wrote articles for Vogue, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker. She moved to Hollywood to pursue a career in screenwriting until she was blacklisted due to possible associations with the Communist Party. A firm believer in civil rights, she bequeathed her literary estate to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Parveen Shakir, the Urdu poet from Pakistan, is considered the best and “most prominent” modern poet the Urdu language has produced. Shakir is credited as the first female poet to use the word larki (girl) in her works; the male-dominated Urdu poetry scene traditionally used a masculine equivalent when referring to a beloved individual. She often used feminine, first-person pronouns in her poetry, which was unheard-of among her predecessors. Shakir’s soul-stirring, allegorical writing aims to illuminate the female experience in rich Urdu verse.
Stein captured the dialogue of common people and significantly influenced the writing of post-World War I authors. She had no interest in conforming to the traditional roles of the American woman, so she moved to Paris and joined the city’s American ex-patriate literary community, where she felt she could freely express herself. An explorer of prose, she broke away from the nineteenth century’s reliance on plot, character, and conventional description to demonstrate how acute awareness and identity could be evoked through simple words. She emphasized the unexpected power of words by arranging them in unusual ways. A true individualist, she refused to confine herself to any genre, much as she did in her personal life.
Award-winning novelist and poet Lucille Clifton’s work explores the female and black American experience of the 20th century. Clifton’s lyrical eloquence gracefully translates broad, universal ideals into short poems with simple structures and limited rhyme. Her poems encompass themes of family, the African American experience, and female sensibility. She is playful with her dialect and style, often juxtaposing concepts to create tension and contrast. Though Clifton is hesitant to call herself a poet, her modesty validates the authenticity of her poetic works, which are always inspired by her celebration of life.
Adrienne Rich’s poetry reflects her lifelong search for identity, as she transitioned from being a traditional wife and mother in the 1950s to being a “woman-identified” feminist and lesbian. Her poetry is laced with anger, confusion, and a desire to reclaim the ownership of a female voice that has been suppressed by a patriarchal culture. Rich gracefully combined her art with her activism. Her growing consciousness and platform for expression allowed her to branch out, speaking about women’s rights, black power, indigenous rights, and environmental issues. Rich never wanted to confine her writing (or herself) to one style or audience, so she created her own form, syntax, and rhythm that showcased the vivid complexity of her own life and of humanity at large.
These women have undoubtedly made their mark on poetry. However, their impact extends far beyond their artistic achievements. In a world that is often quick to silence those who stray from tradition, these twelve women courageously used their voices to create change where it was most needed. Though poetry continues to evolve, the legacies of these women will live on through their words.