Sometimes, when I don't feel in the mood to read a novel, and a play just won't do the trick, I pick up a poem or two by one of the amazing female poets I love to read again and again. One of the best things is actually hearing the poems read by the author, but in the case of the dearly departed who didn't leave recordings, sometimes reading it out loud is just as good. I always say poetry has to be read out loud - it has to be heard, like music. How else can we appreciate the subtle rhythms and rhymes? Here are some amazing female poets you should definitely read.
1. Emily Dickinson
Oh how I love the enigmatic Emily with her blatant disregard for grammatical convention and love affair with the dash. Emily Dickinson is one of the finest American poets and was certainly ahead of her time. So much so that very few of her poems were published in her lifetime and even when they were, her editors felt the need to edit them within an inch of their lives, ruining their bizarre beauty. Now though, we can relish in their weirdness by reading them in their unadulterated form. She is renowned for her obsession with death and I never tire of "Because I could not stop for death" and "I heard a fly buzz when I died," so beautiful, in a morbid kind of way. I'm sure she's sitting above (in white of course, as that was reportedly what she loved to wear) and smiling at her ability to confuse us. We salute you, Emily Dickinson, as you are, in my humble opinion, one of the most amazing female poets.
2. Carol Ann Duffy
Carol Ann Duffy is a modern day British poet. My favorite anthology of hers is “The World's Wife,” in which she takes many female characters from history and looks at things from their perspective. Her poems deal with themes such as sexism and equality and are really accessible, which is why she is taught on many English school syllabuses. She is, in my view, an incredible poet and is both amusing and thought provoking. In "Havisham," she takes the character from Dickens' Great Expectations, Miss Havisham, and writes from her perspective and you can imagine how annoyed she would be at having been dumped on her wedding day! She calls him expletives, which I won't repeat here, and fantasizes about him dying...Well, that's what happens when you upset a woman!
3. Grace Nichols
Grace Nichols was born in Guyana in 1950 and moved to Britain in the late '70s. She worked as a journalist and reporter and her most famous anthology is “The Fat Black Woman's Poems,” in which the character poses many questions to rulers and politicians about the world in which she lives. She also writes about being torn between two cultures and her experience growing up in a tropical landscape. One of my favorite poems is "Looking at Miss World," in which the character looks hopefully for a 'plump at least if not fat and black' woman to appear. The best message to us all from the character however is “It's better to die in the flesh of hope than to live in the slimness of despair." Who can argue with that? Grace Nichols’ voice really is beautiful, so if you can, listen to some recordings of her reading her poetry.
4. Alice Walker
I love Alice Walker's writing full stop. It's honest, open, outspoken and unapologetic. In many ways the novel “The Color Purple” is very poetic, but that's an argument I save for my lessons on that amazing book. Her first anthology of poems, “Once,” was published in 1968 and is my favorite of her anthologies. Some of the poems were written when she was in East Africa in 1965 and give us a glimpse into her interests in the civil-rights movement. She says that it is through poetry that she has found her "invincible sun" and I certainly agree that from a reader's point of view, poetry can be very powerful.
5. Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou has written many autobiographical novels, my favorite one being her first, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." She is also a brilliant poet - another writer with the enviable ability to write in both genres so well. I'm not jealous. Really. My favorite anthology of hers is "And Still I Rise," followed swiftly by "Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Die." Angelou has had, in her own words, a "roller-coaster life" and this is reflected in her poetry, which makes it so entertaining to read.
6. Christina Rossetti
Christina Rossetti was a Victorian poet. She wrote many romantic poems and children's poems. My absolute favorite poem is “Goblin Market,” which was written for children. To cut a long story short, the poem focuses on two sisters who are being tempted to buy the fruit that the goblin men are selling in the woods. One of the sisters gives in and, well, I'll leave you to find out the rest. My students are always amused - I'm talking laugh out loud amused and bemused - when I read this to them, as I think modern day readers have some very different interpretations. It is so beautifully written and rich in imagery that I never tire of this poem.
7. Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath's personal story is a tragic one but it doesn't detract us from some of the beautiful poems she has left as part of her literary legacy. She published her first poem at the age of eight, which is some accomplishment. Her poems are a little on the somber side, as some deal with her mental anguish, marriage problems and troubled relationships with her family. In "Mirror" she contemplates both literal and metaphorical reflections and "Lady Lazarus" is a dark poem about suicide... Perhaps read something light and breezy after that one!
Some people dislike poetry and most of the time it’s because it can be confusing on the first reading. But after a few readings, it can often start to make more sense and you can get lost in the language and lyrics. Which poets do you love to read, female or otherwise, and what are your favorite poems? I’d love to hear!