The list of famous American and English poets is endless.
From Thomas Wyatt, Willian Shakespeare, Walter Raleigh, John Milton, Lord Byron, John Keats, Willian Wordsworth, Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats, Robert Burnes, Rudyard Kipling or T.S. Elliot in the United Kingdom to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry David Thoreau, James Whitcomb Riley, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost or E.E. Cummings for the United States’ American poets, the poetry literary genre has been dominated by males entities.
The patriarchy of the time often belittled women for being too sensitive, too emotional, too dramatic, but such attributes are often what characterises poetry.
Using words, their order, dissonance and assonance, and the weight they carry rather than their semantic meaning, to convey an emotion or a feeling are often what characterised the best work of poetry.
Fortunately, there have been women whose work emerged and was published, which 200 years ago was an accomplishment in itself. In this article, we will shed some light on these female poets that have been acclaimed by literary critics and subsequently enriched our common heritage.
Born sometime around 630 BC, Sappho is probably the first example of a female poet in history. Her legacy during antiquity was just as great as Homer. While he was referred to as “The Poet” she was sometimes called “The Poetess”. Plato and Socrates, the classical Greece philosopher, founders of Western Philosophy, even cited her or her work in some of their speeches and writings.
Most of Sappho’s work did not survive time, a lot of it is only fragmented pieces, but one complete poem survived to this day, The Ode To Aphrodite.
The poem is a prayer to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, where Sappho asks for help in getting attention from an unnamed woman, for which Sappho has fallen in love.
“To my side: “And whom should Persuasion summon
Here, to soothe the sting of your passion this time?
Who is now abusing you, Sappho? Who is
Treating you cruelly?
Now she runs away, but she’ll soon pursue you;
Gifts she now rejects–soon enough she’ll give them;
Now she doesn’t love you, but soon her heart will
Burn, though unwilling.”
– Sappho, Hymn to Aphrodite
Born in 1806, Elizabeth Barrett started to write poetry from the early age of 6 years old. Her mother collected her poems, which became the largest surviving collection of juvenile writing by any English writer, ever.
Barrett suffered a poor health for most of her life and possibly had tuberculosis. It did not stop her writing and she published her first collection of poems at the age of 32 years old. Her poetry was very well received and she wrote profusely in the following years.
She also actively campaigned against slavery and influenced the reforms of child labour legislation.
Her work also caught the attention of another poet, Robert Browning, who after writing to her, began to secretly court her. Knowing that her father would disapprove, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browing married in secret in 1846 before moving to Italy where they lived happily for the rest of their lives.
The work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning had a great influenced on some of her famous contemporary writers among which Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning represents the English Romantic movement at its best, both through her work and her own personal life.
“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints,—I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.”
– Elizabeth Barret Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese, Sonnet 43
Elizabeth Bishop was born in Massachusetts in 1911. Her childhood was far from being happy as she lost her father to illness when she was only 8 months old and her mom subsequently lost her mind.
She was going to be sent to live with different relatives, first her maternal grandparents, then her paternal family.
Being a sickly child, Bishop barely attended school before she was 14 years and was accepted in high school. She went on studying at the Vassar University, one of the oldest universities in America to grant women access to higher education.
First studying music, she quickly changed her mind after realising that she was terrified of performing in public.
Living on a small income left by her father inheritance, she was able to travel all around the United States, though always on the cheap. She predated the beatnik movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. Her love for travelling transpired greatly in her work.
Bishop did not publish much of her work, but when she did, her poetry won her immediate success. From 1946 and the publication of her first poetry book North & South, she won awards after awards: a Guggenheim Fellowship, Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, the Lucy Martin Donelly Fellowship (awarded by Bryn Mawr College), the Shelley Memorial Award, a lifetime membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the Chapelbrook Foundation Award, an Academy of American Poets Fellowship.
Elizabeth Bishop became the archetype of the travelling writer. Her work has been greatly influenced by her journeys. ( by Alice Methfesse)
After receiving a travelling fellowship from the Byrn Mawr College, she started a journey that would take her around South America by boat. Arriving in Brazil in November 1951, she stayed in the country for 15 years.
“The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.”
– Elizabeth Bishop, One Art
Born in 1917 and raised during the Great Depression, Gwendolyn Brooks would face bias and racism during her school years, but it never stopped her from writing.
Taking inspiration from her southside community of Chicago, she began writing during her early teens, strongly encouraged to do so by her mother who was a teacher.
She was first published when she was 13 years old and by the time she was 16, she had written and published at least 75 poems. Her unique point of view as a black teenager in a very racially charged America often depicted and celebrated ordinary people from Brooks neighbourhood.
After attending many writing workshops during the early 1940’s, she eventually published her first poetry book in 1945, A Street In Bronzeville with Harper & Brothers, one of the biggest publishing house of the country.
Her book received immediate success and she was granted a Guggenheim Fellowship the next year. Following that success, she wrote Annie Allen, the story of a young black girl growing in the same neighbourhood of Bronzeville that she depicted in her first book. For this work she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, making her the first African American woman to be awarded a Pulitzer.
She continued to write and was passionate about teaching and helping other young African American students to develop their talent for writing.
Gwendolyn Brooks’ work was inspirational for a whole generation of American writers.
The American Academy of Arts and Letters made her the first African American member in 1976. Gwendolyn Brooks legacy and influence on a whole generation was especially strong in her hometown of Chicago, where many schools and cultural centres have been named after her.
In 2002 she was declared one of the 100 greatest African American by the Temple University, in their biographical dictionary.
“Exhaust the little moment. Soon it dies.
And be it gash or gold it will not come
Again in this identical disguise.”
– Gwendolyn Brooks, Annie Allen
Maya Angelou has had an extraordinary life. Born in 1928, in the Southern state of Missouri, she recounted her troubled childhood in her autobiography and international best-seller, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969.
Her book, the first of a seven-volume series, described how she overcame racism and trauma through love and determination.
Her first poetry work dates from her childhood, during which she used literature as a healing tool. Her first published work only occurred after she performed various jobs, such as a cast member for the Porgy and Bess European tour and calypso music performer during the 1950’s.
Her first volume of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, published in 1971, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
During Bill Clinton Presidential inauguration, she recited “On the Pulse of Morning” and became the first African American and woman to read a poem at a presidential inauguration. She won a Grammy Award the following year for “Best Spoken Words”.
She mentioned in her autobiographies that she was greatly affected by the work of William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe or Douglas Johnson during her childhood.
She in turned had a huge impact on African American literature and her poetry influenced modern hip-hop musicians such as Kanye West, Tupac Shakur or Nicki Minaj.
Obama attributed the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Maya Angelou for her lifetime achievements.
“A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Mark the mastodon.
The dinosaur, who left dry tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.
I will give you no hiding place down here.
You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness,
Have lain too long
Face down in ignorance.
Your mouths spelling words
Armed for slaughter.”
– Maya Angelou, On The Pulse Of Morning