Though poets like Sappho have contributed to poetry from ancient times, females came to the forefront in poetic literature only in the 19th century. American poet Emily Dickinson; and British poets Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning; were among the leading poets of their generations and their poetry remains extremely popular even today. The twentieth century saw an even greater upsurge in female writers and this also reflected in poetic literature. Among others, Sarojini Naidu of India; and Sylvia Plath and Maya Angelou of the United States; were towering figures of twentieth century poetry. This has continued in the 21st century with females now dominating poetic literature. Know more about the contribution of women to poetry through the 10 most famous poems by women.
#10 In the Bazaars of Hyderabad
Poet: Sarojini Naidu
Hyderabad is the capital city of the Indian state of Telangana and bazaar is a Hindi word for market. In the Bazaars of Hyderabad describes the social and cultural life of the city through the beautiful common scenes in its traditional markets. The poem has a conversational tone. It is set in the form of questions and answers between the vendors and buyers in the market. It contains a rhythm and a beat, and the sequence of the phrases “What do you” and “O ye” marks the rhyme scheme of the poem. To describe the bazaars, Naidu uses rich sensory images and a vibrant sense of touch, sound, smell, sight and taste. In the Bazaars of Hyderabad has been described as an oriental gem by The New York Times. It is the most famous poem of Sarojini Naidu, who is known as The Nightingale of India.
What do you weave, O ye flower-girls
With tassels of azure and red?
Crowns for the brow of a bridegroom,
Chaplets to garland his bed.
Sheets of white blossoms new-garnered
To perfume the sleep of the dead.
#9 Wild Geese
Poet: Mary Oliver
Mary Jane Oliver is one of the most famous female poets of all time and she won many awards during her life including the Pulitzer Prize. Her poetry is inspired by nature and it describes the sense of wonder it instills in her. In this poem, the speaker talks directly to the reader expressing what one must do in order to lead a good life. She tells the reader that it is not required to be morally good or lead a life of penance but instead one must turn to nature and follow one’s heart. Throughout the poem, Oliver uses the word “you” to address the reader bringing a sense of urgency to the work. Also, vivid and beautiful imagery has been used to lure the reader towards nature. Comprising of only one stanza and eighteen lines, Wild Geese is the most famous poem of Mary Oliver.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Poet: Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath is regarded as a pioneer in the genre of Confessional poetry, a term used to define poems which focus on the individual. Mirror was written by Plath in 1961 but it was published posthumously, ten years later, as part of her collection of poetry Crossing the Water. In this short but famous poem, the narrator is a wall mirror in what appears to be a woman’s bedroom. The mirror, endowed with human traits in the poem, describes itself as “silver and exact” and “not cruel, only truthful”. It is the only thing that gives the woman a faithful representation of herself and though she is disturbed as she looks at her aging self, she can’t help from visiting it over and over again every morning. Critics have speculated that the mirror in the poem provides the woman not only with her physical appearance, but also gives her a reflection of her mind, her soul, and her psyche.
I am not cruel, only truthful‚
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
Poet: Christina Rossetti
Christina Rossetti was a 19th century English poet who, though not very popular in her lifetime, influenced many later poets and is now considered a symbol of constrained female genius. Remember, her best known work, was written by her in 1849 while she was still a teenager. However, it was published much later in 1862 as part of her first collection Goblin Market and Other Poems. In the octave of the sonnet, the speaker urges her beloved to remember her after she has died; while in the sestet, she shifts her focus from remembrance and concludes that it would be better for her loved one to forget her and be happy than to remember her and be sad.
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
#6 Because I Could Not Stop For Death
Poet: Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson is considered among the greatest poets in English literature. She is known for her unusual use of form and syntax; and for being “the poet of paradox”. Many of Dickinson’s poems deal with the themes of death and immortality; and this is the most famous of them all. In it, Emily personifies death as a gentle guide who takes a leisurely carriage ride with the poet to her grave. Also known as The Chariot, the poem comprises of six quatrains and during these, the personification of death changes from one of pleasantry to one of ambiguity and morbidity. Because I Could Not Stop For Death is regarded as one of the finest poems of Emily Dickinson. According to prominent American poet Allen Tate, “If the word great means anything in poetry, this poem is one of the greatest in the English language; it is flawless to the last detail.”
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
#5 How do I love thee?
Alternate Title: Sonnet 43
Poet: Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Sonnet 43 is part of a sonnet sequence of 44 sonnets called Sonnets from the Portuguese. It was written before Elizabeth Barrett married the famous English poet and playwright Robert Browning. In Sonnet 43, Elizabeth expresses her intense love for Robert listing the various ways in which she experiences love for her beloved. Her love, which she considers spiritual, allows her to reach extremes which are otherwise impossible. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was one of the most prominent poets of the Victorian era and How do I love thee is her most renowned poem. It is also one of the most famous love poems written by a woman.
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.
#4 Phenomenal Woman
Poet: Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou has been referred to as “people’s poet” and “the black woman’s poet laureate”. In this poem, the narrator, a self-confident woman, talks about the traits that make her phenomenal despite her not adhering to the world’s view of how a woman should look. Despite not being “built to suit a fashion model’s size”, women wonder where her secret lies and men swarm around her like honey bees. Maya Angelou said that she wrote Phenomenal Woman for all women, regardless of their race or appearance. It is perhaps the most popular of her poems that she often recited for audiences during her public appearances. It was also one of Angelou’s poems featured in the 1993 American film Poetic Justice.
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Poet: Sylvia Plath
Daddy was written by Plath in October 1962, around four months before she committed suicide, and was published posthumously as part of the poetry collection Ariel. Containing sixteen five-line stanzas, the poem is narrated by a girl who has Electra complex, analogous to a boy’s Oedipus complex. It deals with the narrator’s effort to get over her complex emotions for her deceased father, who apart from suppressing her daughter, was also a Nazi. Plath uses dark and vivid imagery in the poem and controversially uses the Holocaust as a metaphor. Several critics consider the poem to be related to the writer’s complex relationship with her father, Otto Plath, who died shortly after her eighth birthday due to diabetes. It is also considered to be an articulation against male dominance. Daddy is the most famous poem by Sylvia Plath and one of the best-known of the twentieth century.
There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.
#2 Hope is the Thing with Feathers
Poet: Emily Dickinson
The most famous poem by Emily Dickinson, Hope is the Thing with Feathers is one of the best known short poems in the English language. It metaphorically describes hope as a feathered bird that rests in the soul. It sings without words and continuously, never stopping in its quest to inspire. It sounds sweetest in hardships and it must take an extremely troubling situation to abash this “little Bird” that gives warmth and comfort to so many people in difficult times. Moreover, despite serving in the direst circumstances, it never demands anything. Hope is the Thing with Feathers is an early poem of Dickinson but despite its simple style, it remains hugely popular.
”Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
#1 Still I Rise
Poet: Maya Angelou
Still I Rise directly addresses the white oppressors of black people and responds to centuries of oppression and mistreatment they have suffered. It talks about various means of oppression, like writing, which the narrator addresses in the first stanza of the poem. Still I Rise hails the indomitable spirit of Black people; and expresses faith that they will triumph despite adversity and racism. It is the most famous poem of Maya Angelou and it was also her favorite. She quoted it during interviews and often included it in her public readings. In 1994, Nelson Mandela recited this poem at his presidential inauguration. Still I Rise is perhaps the most famous poem written by an African American and it has been called a “proud, even defiant statement on behalf of all Black people”. It is also perhaps the most famous poem by a female.
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.