5 Female Poets You Should Be Reading Right Now

5 Female Poets You Should Be Reading Right Now

To the uninitiated, poetry can be dull and pretentious. It might remind you of mind-numbingly boring English classes rather than engaging reading. But poetry is a huge part of literature, and even if you’ve overlooked up to this point, it’s never too late to start reading. 

If you’re stuck with where to start, read our short primer of 5 major female poets. While you might of heard or even previously read a couple of them, we hope looking at them from a fresh perspective will help you to enjoy their work. Ever more so than novels, poetry is often deeply personal to the author. So knowing a little bit of background can really bring depth and meaning to what your reading…

 Read on for our list of five favourite female poets, and comment your favourite poem below!

 

  1. Edna St Vincent Millay

Born in 1892 in Rockland, Maine. After graduating from Vassar College, she moved to New York City.  She joined the burgeoning bohemian scene of Greenwich village. Her first poems due criticism for their frank feminist themes. In 1924, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her poem “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver, and she was the first woman to do so. The year before, she had married Eugen Jan Boissevain. They bought Steepletop, a former blueberry farm in upstate New York. In 1936, she suffered a car accident where she was thrown from the car at great speed, resulting in a spinal injury that she was struggle with for the rest of her life. 

As well as an ardent feminist, Millay also spoke out frequently against the rise of racism. She worked in the Writer’s War Board during the war to craft propaganda. This essentially destroyed her reputation in poet’s circles, and she never regained her literary standing. In her later years, she struggled with significant debts, the care of her mentally ill sister and her own injury-induced morphine addiction. 

Despite her slow decline in later years, her work continues to speak for her long after her death and she remains a towering figure of 20th century poetry. Her sister Norma made Steepletop the Millay Colony for the Arts after her death. Another legendary poetry figure, Mary Oliver, spent several years living on and off at the retreat. It is now been restored by New York State and is a permanent museum.

 Even thought Millay was heavily engaged in the politics of her time, her poetry has not dated in the years since. In fact, her honest depictions of the female experience are still startling today.

 

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2. Emily Dickinson 

Unarguably one of the finest ever female poets, sadly her work has been overshadowed by her idiosyncratic lifestyle and unproven rumours about her personal life. But if you can overlook her towering reputation, underneath was an earnest and soulful poet who wrote transcendent poetry. 

Born in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts. From an educated family, she attended Amherst College followed briefly by the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. As a teenager, her friend Benjamin Newton introduced her to the writing of William Wordsworth and Ralph Waldo Emerson. 

Emily’s early experience was marked greatly by her close proximity to death, including that of her cousin Sophia. Emily was extremely close to her cousin and was shaken with this experience. She also lost her friend Benjamin and her principal at Amherst Academy. 

Her closest friend and confidante was her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert. They exchanged hundreds of letters and Sarah was an avid supporter of her writing. She seldom travelled out of Amherst and became more withdrawn from society as her mother’s health grew worse. She devoted countless hours revising her poetry and piecing the papers together, eventually combined into forty collections containing over eight hundred poem. While her withdrawal from the world might not have been good for her health, her poetry pertained flourished during this time.

While Emily had long standing relationships with several men and women, mainly through written correspondence, she never married. In later years, she refused to see any visitors face to face, preferring to talk from the other side of the door. She frequently wore white. After suffering a number of losses, including that of both her parents, she succumbed to Bright’s Disease at the age of 55. 

 

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3. Christina Rossetti

While their poetry is very different, you could say that Christina Rossetti is Britain’s Emily Dickinson. Her poetry could be wildly disperate - on the one hand, weird and fantastical poems about goblins and on the other, deeply religious poetry. Like Dickinson, she grew more reclusive as she got older, rejecting society in order to devote herself fully to writing. 

Christina Rossetti was born in 1830 in London to Italian immigrant parents. Her father was a Dante scholar and her mother had family connections to Lord Byron, so she was raised in a literary milieu. 

Her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, found the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with several fellow artists and writers. Despite her brother’s encouragement, she showed little interest in becoming a member, preferring her solitude. Despite this, they greatly influenced each other’s work. Gabriel painted Christina numerous times, and he illlustrated her most acclaimed poem, The Goblin Market. She has begun writing in earnest in her early teens. Goblin Market was a runaway success and praised by critics.

Despite her retiring life, Christina maintained a circle of friends. An extremely religious woman, she was actively engaged in her church and at a local house of charity for destitute women. However, her life was limited by illness. She was diagnosed with Grave’s Disease at age forty and would struggle with this, along with other illnesses, until her death.

 While her poetry has fallen in and out of favour throughout the years, a few of her poems such as “Remember Me” and “In The Bleak Midwinter” have become absolute cornerstones of literature.

 

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4. Elizabeth Barrett Browning

In many ways, Christina Rossetti was Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s successor, and also inspired Emily Dickinson greatly. Twenty-five years older than Rossetti, she was born in 1806 in County Durham, England. She was the eldest of a large and wealthy family and grew up in the sumptuous surroundings of Hope End, a large estate in Herefordshire. She was extremely intelligent and began writing verse at age four, with the encouragement of both her parents. 

Sadly, her life was defined by a succession of illnesses, which began when she was a small child. She suffered intense head and spinal pain for which no diagnosis could be made. In later adulthood, she suffered with lung disease.

At age 35, she returned to the family home, now in London, to convalesce. Her health got better, and she continued to write prolifically. In the subsequent years, she would published several volumes of poetry. She was politically engaged, and writing an length about women’s suffrage and in condemnation of child labour.

 At age 38, her poetry inspired Robert Browning to write to her. Due to her family’s disapproval they courted in private and married in 1845, whereafter they moved to Italy, where they would remain for the rest of their lives. There they lived comfortably and entertained a lustrous circle of artists and writers, such as William Thackeray and George Sand. However, Elizabeth’s health was always frail and they moved frequently in her last years in hopes of improving things. She had been a life-long user of morphine and opium, which eased her pain. She died in 1861 at the age of 55.

 

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5. Maya Angelou

Unlike the other poets on this list, Maya Angelou did not come from comfortable means, or a loving family. She did not have a room to which she could retire from the world to devote herself to writing. She took many different kinds of work in order to support herself. But she became “The People’s Poet”.

 She was born in 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. Due her parent’s breakup when she was very small, she was moved around frequently, and suffered severe abuse and rape by her mother’s boyfriend. After her brother told the family, the man was murdered after one day in prison. Following this, Maya did not speak for five years. She credits her ability to regain her speech, as well as her love of literature, with her teacher Bertha Flowers. 

 At age 23, she took a dance class and fell in love with modern dance, and she began pursuing it as a career. She had danced in clubs professionally in San Francisco, as well as touring Europe in a performance of Porgy and Bess. She also recorded an album of calypso music. 

 In 1959, she was encouraged by her friend the writer John Oliver Killens to move to New York City to become a writer. She joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild. She also continued writing and performing and was politically active, close friends with Malcolm X and outspoken about apartheid. 

 The later part of her career was breathtakingly prolific. She composed music, wrote plays, short stories, scripts and poetry. She acted as a visiting professor at a number of universities. She even acted, and was nominated for a Tony Award in 1988. In 1981, she became a full-time professor of American studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. At the start of the 90s, she began touring on the lecture circuit, which she would continue to do well into her eighth decade. In 1996, she directed a feature length film, Down in the Delta. She was even in the Billboard charts after collaborating with R&B artists Ashford and Simpson.

 She died in 2014 at the age of eighty-six, and despite poor health was still writing up until her death - she wrote four books in her last decade of life. 

 

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"Still I Rise" Poem Print

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