5 Inspiring Poems by Female Writers
Amidst our turbulent political climate, abound with unprecedented highs and lows, it is important that we not only cherish all the progress we have made, but also look to the future. In these times of joy, uncertainty, and change, I want to share the words of some strong, female writers that I often find myself falling back on whenever I feel discouraged, disheartened, or am just looking for some feminist beauty in this world. These are the inspiring words that I remember in times of distress, and I hope that they can inspire you too.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers ~ Emily Dickinson, 1862
As one of America’s greatest poets of all time, there is scarcely an English student alive today who does not know the name “Emily Dickinson”. The Belle of Amherst—known for her ability to capture the depth of human emotions in a few simple, whimsical lines—lived a life characterized by reclusivity. It was only after her death in 1886 that her poems, arranged in handsewn books by Dickinson, were discovered by her sister, edited, and published. It was not until 1998—more than a full century later—that a full volume was published with all of Dickinson’s unique order, punctuation, and spelling choices restored.
Emily Dickinson, as “one of the earliest feminist voices in writing,” has always fascinated me. Little known during her lifetime, the few poems she published were questioned and overlooked by the male-dominated establishments, especially as her innovative uses of form and syntax were edited away. However, once her poetry was published in its intended form, her popularity and stature soared.
“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” written during Dickinson’s most productive, but also most isolated, period, is one of her most famous works. It is also one of my favorites. The three short stanzas capture the elusively abstract, yet endlessly universal idea of hope—highlighting both its agility and strength. Today, in a world made more vast and all-encompassing by technology, hope might seem too small a notion to keep us going. However, it is the one thing that exists everywhere, even in the most difficult times and situations. It does not ask anything of us, except for us to keep it in our minds, so that it can keep us warm in the chillest land, and on the strangest sea.
Still I Rise ~ Maya Angelou, 1978
It is hard to describe Maya Angelou in a few words. As an award-winning author and poet, Angelou has written numerous poems and autobiographies, including the acclaimed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. As a civil rights activist, she worked for both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Although lesser known, she was also a singer, dancer, actress, composer, the first black woman to have her screenplay produced, and Hollywood’s first female black director. She has performed at Clinton’s inaugural ceremony, written children’s books and cookbooks, and was friends with Oprah.
Maya Angelou’s life was a kaleidoscope of black excellence. Moreover, what she accomplished, she accomplished despite a childhood marred by racial prejudice and sexual violence. In “Still I Rise,” Angelou showcases her resilience and power.
When I first read this poem, I felt chills running down my spine. Although Angelou’s words were specific to her experience as a black woman, we can all resonate with her beautiful and unapologetic language. We—all of us who have faced hate and prejudice because of who we are—are the moons, and the suns, and like air, we’ll rise. We should all embrace our sassiness and sexuality, as Angelou bracingly and gracefully calls for. I urge you to watch Angelou’s magnetic performance of this poem, and long after, her powerful words will still be ringing in your ear, lifting you up.
What Do Women Want? ~ Kim Addonizio, 2000
Born in Washington D.C., Kim Addonizio is a prolific writer with works in both poetry and fiction. Known for her “controversial, cutting edge poetry” that often explores female experiences, Addonizio’s poems are also recognized for their “gritty, street-wise narrators and wicked sense of wit.”
I first came across “What Do Women Want?” in a writing workshop. Since then, it has been one of my favorite poems. The short free-verse, which embodies Addonizio’s poetic style, tracks a piercing, unapologetic speaker as they imagine a deeply desired dress.
I think all of us, at one point or another, has wished for a dress like this. One that will allow us to reclaim our bodies, to dress so that we may be as attractive, vulnerable, or free from the intrusive gaze as we want to be. A dress (or any garment, really) that will let us walk down the streets with our heads held high, unafraid of unwanted cat calls and advances, and instead ready to conquer the gritty world. It will be our battlearmor, but it will also be what we wear to greet the joys and comforts of the world.
In her poem, Addonizio speaks of her wish for this magical, powerful garment. Yet, as she describes her dress with confidence and certainty, she shows that this power already exists within us. When we find it, it will not be one single dress, but all that we carry into the world. Addonizio’s words remind us of our power, so that we may find it, claim it, and hold on to it.
Erasure Poem ~ Isobel O’Hara, 2017
In 2017, in the midst of the MeToo movement, Isobel O’Hara—a New Mexico-based poet and essayist—began posting a series of works to social media that soon turned viral. In them, O’Hara created erasure poetry—the practice of covering words from a passage until a poem remains—out of the statements released by public figures who have been accused of sexual misconducts, from the likes of Louis C.K. to Harvey Weinstein.
O’Hara’s poems, with their simple yet meaningful form, resonated with so many people because they interrogate these often hollow statements to reveal much deeper truths, either on behalf of the people who released them, or the society that enabled them. In the case of C.K’s statement, in which he never explicitly apologizes to the women he harassed, O’Hara exposes a denial and shift of responsibility that we see all too often when men are accused of inappropriate behavior. After all, it is not like the actions of a person’s dick can be separated from that person themselves.
Recently, a compilation of these erasure poems, all this can be yours, was published, with 100% of the proceeds going to RANN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) and Futures Without Violence. In it, O’Hara included 16 erasure poems of the same statement by C.K., as well as sections of poems divided into different “types” of statements: blaming the times, denying the victims’ accounts, defending the accused, etc. O’Hara also chose not to name the origins of these statements, in order to show that such actions are not isolated, but part of a larger cultural problem. Ultimately, while it is incredibly cathartic to read as O’Hara pokes holes in the dismissal and insincerity of these sometimes ridiculous statements, these poems also allows us to recognize and address the prevalence of what lies underneath.
How You Are Showing Up This Year ~ Cleo Wade, 2018
As a young poet, activist, and artist, Cleo Wade has had many monikers. Growing up in a biracial family in New Orleans, Wade moved to New York in 2006, and soon achieved “It Girl” status (although she dislikes the term) through her penchant for style. Wade, wanting to pursue a new mission of empowering and supporting others, then turned to advocacy through a combination of political activism, art, and social media.
Today, Wade has delivered an incredibly inspiring TED Talk, created a large-scale art installation in Times Square on International Women’s Day, and released Heart Talk, a collection of over 120 original poems, mantras, and affirmations. She has been named the “millennial Oprah” by The Cut, and “everybody’s BFF” by The New York Times.
You can find bite-sized portions of Wade’s words everywhere, posted on her popular Instagram feed, or splashed across the signs at the March for Our Lives. This past spring, Wade penned a poem for The New York Times. Published alongside comments from The New York Times readers about how they have become more politically active, the poem is a clear and resolute call to action for each of us. Like most of Wades’ writing, her poem is candid and relatable. It covers the fatigue that we all might have felt at some point, when faced with what seems like an endless stream of setbacks and bad news. But she also highlights the countless, equally important reasons to push on: the words of Anita Hill and Coretta Scott King; the LGBTQ youths living in the street and the DREAMERs; the desire to not have to teach our children what to wear to avoid sexual harassment, or to leave them locked in cages at the border.
Wade’s words call for us show up for others, but also for ourselves, especially on the days when we are tired and overwhelmed. After all, that is the power of poetry. It pushes us and gives us hope, it reminds us of why we are fighting and what we are fighting for, even in our darkest hours. It can become the mantras that we chant and the words that we keep in our hearts, and at the back of our minds. When I am down, the poems of those like Dickinson, Angelou, Addonizio, O’Hara, and Wade help me get back up. They remind me of the power and spirit that we each possesses, and I hope that they can do the same for you.
Illustration: Sophie Lee