In celebration of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, we have decided to share our top five influential female poets. Our list contains poets from different decades with very different styles. Think yourself a bit of a poetry nerd? See if there are any in our list that you’ve never heard of!
Maya Angelou really was a multi-talented woman. Poet, novelist, activist, performer, professor. From becoming the first black female director in Hollywood to working for Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement. Angelou’s most famous work is her first autobiography, I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings. In this book, she describes the intense trauma experienced at the young age of 7. This trauma led her to become electively mute until she was 12. She was encouraged by a mentor and a newfound love for poetry to rediscover her own voice.
Does my sexiness upset you?Maya Angelou, Still I Rise, from And Still I Rise: A Book of Poems, 1978
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Inspired by legendary black writers including Langston Hughes and W. E. B. Du Bois, as well as Edgar Allan Poe and Shakespeare. Maya Angelou’s writings became prolific among the world of literature and further afield. Her poetry was addressing social justice, political discourse, and the celebration of black and female resilience and beauty. Throughout her life, Maya Angelou found great enjoyment in performing her poetry, reciting them in an energetic style with genuine passion and charm.
Emily Dickinson is a poet characterised by her eccentricity and reclusive nature. Born in 1830, Dickinson was raised in an educated household and was always a diligent student, but at her school, she was officially labelled a girl ‘without hope’. This was down to her refusal to accept religion into her life and general rebuttal against the norm. She found great respect for the observation of nature, fascinated by the cultivation of plants and wrote about them a lot in her early writing.
The Bustle in a HouseEmily Dickinson, The Bustle in a House (1108), Edited HUP, 1999
The Morning after Death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted opon Earth –
The Sweeping up the Heart
And putting Love away
We shall not want to use again
Until Eternity –
Dickinson wrote consistently throughout her life, using narrative in an innovative way. The speakers in her poems discuss society’s values and questioning and observing their own imaginations. She was heavily influenced by the Metaphysical poets. Dickinson never married and never moved from the family home. After her death, they found forty handbound volumes containing around 1800 poems. Her work was published posthumously and the late 19th century welcomed her talent. She quickly became a leading name in American poetry and still is.
UK Poet Laureate between 2009 and 2019, Carol Ann Duffy has certainly made her mark in poetry. She’s best known for writing love poems, but her work explores a range of subjects, often through a feminist lens. Her first poetry book Standing Female Nude was met with huge appraise. She has written several children’s poetry collections and has even wrote adapted Grimm fairytales. Since 1973, Duffy has published over 45 books and continues to do so.
I served up the meal. For starters, corn on the cob.Carol Ann Duffy, Mrs Midas, 1999
Within seconds he was spitting out the teeth of the rich.
He toyed with his spoon, then mine, then with the knives, the forks.
He asked where was the wine. I poured with a shaking hand,
a fragrant, bone-dry white from Italy, then watched
as he picked up the glass, goblet, golden chalice, drank.
Carol Ann Duffy is one of the best-known poets writing on queer love. She’s hugely inspirational for young creatives in the LGBT+ community. Her work has been included in anthologies for UK school curriculums so her work resonants throughout generations. One of her best selling poetry books, The World’s Wife, presents the imaginative narratives of women behind world-famous male figures. Duffy is immensely skilled at striking a balance between humour and sincerity, creating a form of social commentary that will outlive her.
A contemporary poet who has carved a new way for poets of the 21st century, Kae Tempest is a performance poet and spoken word artist. They won the Ted Hughes Poetry Award in 2013 with their innovative theatre piece, Brand New Ancients. Tempest has also written a play, recorded two albums, a novel, and several poetry collections.
But we are still mythical.Kae Tempest – Brand New Ancients, 2013
We are still permanently trapped
somewhere between the heroic and the pitiful.
We are still Godly,
that’s what’s made us so monstrous.
It just feels like we’ve forgotten
that we’re much more
than the sum of the things that belong to us.
Spoken word artists have been bringing poetry from the page to the stage since the mid-20th century. Read more about performance poetry here. But Tempest has managed to bring their work into the mainstream, breaking into the world of Hip Hop and redefining the title of ‘poet’. Tempest began competing in poetry slams and now they sell-out stadium tours across the world. With a fairly private social life, Tempest’s best communication is through the multitude of narratives in their work. Changing the shape of the poetry landscape is an incredible achievement, gaining them a spot on our top fives list.
*N.B. We note that Kae Tempest identifies as non-binary. This blog post was written before Tempest made their announcement in August 2020. We continue to recognise their impact as a non-binary person in literature, as well as their work which existed and inspired in women’s spaces, and continues to inspire all people, especially those of diverse and minority identities.
One of the most influential poets of the 20th century, Sylvia Plath life was tragically short. Best known for her poem Daddy, this along with a significant proportion of her writing explores the relationship she had with her authoritative and imposing father. He died when Plath was only eight years old and this played a part in her mentality as she grew up. In 1956, Plath met and married the renowned English poet Ted Hughes. Their marriage together was tumultuous and has been subject to speculation to this day.
Herr God, Herr LuciferSylvia Plath, Lady Lazurus, 1960
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
Throughout her life, Sylvia Plath wrote five poetry collections as well as a semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar. It tells the story of a young woman living with mental illness, navigating through life at the birth of her career. Plath herself suffered from severe depression from a young age, attempting suicide at 20. Her poetry is symptomatic of a passionate and emotionally intellectual thinker. She is often categorised as a Confessionalist along with Anne Sexton. Her writings explore the power of rhythm when coupled with very visceral and intense imagery. Plath’s writing particularly inspires young people thanks to her honest and raw portrayal of pain and the outward expression of mental wellbeing.
What do you think of our top five influential female poets? Which female poets are on your list? Let us know in the comments below.