Five modern classic American women poets

Do you want to read more poetry but not sure where to start?

For April, poetry month, I’ll be sharing various poetry recommendations to help you read more poetry.


For this week, I wanted to share five American women poets that are considered classics from the last 100 years or so.

This is the last week of poetry month and me sharing poet recommendations. I hope you’ve enjoyed this series! Please let me know your thoughts in a comment below.

All five of the women poets mentioned below were born in the 1900’s, and unfortunately none of them are still with us today. Each of them are significant both for their literary contributions and their impact on society.

Five women poets

Here’s a list of five women poets who lived in the last 100 years or so:

  1. Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)
  2. Sylvia Plath (1923-1963)
  3. Maya Angelou (1928-2014)
  4. Audre Lorde (1934-1992)
  5. Mary Oliver (1935-2019)

I’ve listed them in order of when they were born. Keep reading to find out more about each one.

Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)

  • 1917-2000
  • Won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1950
    • First African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize
  • Won the Robert Frost Medal for Lifetime Achievement in 1989

Gwendolyn Brooks was an American poet, author, and teacher. She is considered one of the most widely read and influential poets from American poetry in the 1900s.

Brooks started writing poetry young, and by 16 she had already written and published around 75 poems!

She born in the south, but was a lifelong resident of Chicago. Living in Chicago was a huge part of her life and greatly influenced her work.

Her work often centers around the lives of ordinary people, with characters commonly a reflection of her life in the inner city of Chicago. She also conveyed a political consciousness through her work, with reflections of the civil rights activism from the 1960’s onwards.

Over her life, she received many public recognitions of her work. In 1950, she received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her book Annie Allen, which made her the first African American to ever receive a Pulitzer. She was also inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters and became the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, being the first Black woman to achieve either of those.

Links:

Sylvia Plath (1923-1963)

  • 1932 – 1963
  • Credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry
  • Died by suicide when only 30 years old

Sylvia Plath is considered one of the most admired and dynamic 20th century poets. She’s best known for her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar (1963), and her two published collections of poetry, The Colossus and Other Poems (1960) and Ariel (1965).

When Plath was only 30 years old (1963), she died by suicide. She suffered from depression for most of her life and had tried several times to commit suicide. At the time of her death, she already had a significant following in the literary community and has since inspired countless readers and other poets.

In 1956, she married fellow poet Ted Hughes. Their relationship was tumultuous and Plath said he was abusive in her letters. They separated due to Hughes’ affair with another woman.

Horrifically, Plath died by suicide before their divorce was finalized and thus her entire estate and all her written work were inherited by Hughes. When Ariel was published after her death, Hughes changed the arrangement and selection of poems to be included from what Plath had already chosen. He has also admitted to destroying some of her journals and even lost (probably “lost”) another journal and an unfinished novel. He’s been repeatedly condemned for his censoring and controlling of her work.

Links:

Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

  • 1928-2014
  • Died at the age of 86
  • Genre(s): Memoirs and poetry
  • Key books: I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings

She had a far reaching career, both as an entertainer (singer, dancer, actress, composer, and Hollywood’s first Black director), storyteller (writer, editor, essayist, playwright, and poet), civil rights activist (worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X), and educator (as a lifetime professorship at Wake Forest University).

Over her life she wrote 36 books, with her most famous being her series of memoirs. Her book I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings, the first in the series of seven memoirs, was incredibly well received and nominated for a National Book Award.

At Bill Clinton’s inauguration she recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” and you can see her inaugural poem recited here. This made her the first poet since Robert Frost (John F. Kennedy in 1961) to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration.

She has received so many medals and public recognition for her work that I’m sure I won’t do it justice, but here’s a short, selective list:

  • Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her book Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie
  • Tony Award for her role in the play Look Away
  • 3 Grammys for her spoken word albums
  • National Medal of Arts given by President Bill Clinton in 2000
  • Presidential Medal of Freedom given by President Barack Obama in 2010
  • Served on two presidential committees (Gerald Ford in 1975 & Jimmy Carter in 19977)

Videos of her performing her poetry

Links:

Audre Lorde (1934-1992)

  • 1934-1992
  • Died at the age of 58
  • Key books:
    Sister Outsider, The Black Unicorn
  • Key Essay:
    The Master’s Tools Will Not Dismantle the Master’s House

Audre Lorde was a self described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” She includes all these aspects of her identity in how she described herself, because she focused a lot on intersectionality and how each area of her life contributed to her overall experience.

A lot of her efforts were related to social activism, working to confront and address various areas of injustice, including racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia, both through political activist work and as a thought leader. Her written work centered around feminism, lesbianism, illness and civil rights, all of it as an exploration of the black female identity.

She contributed significantly to feminist theory, critical race studies, and queer theory. Her iconic essay “The Master’s Tools Will Not Dismantle the Master’s House” was an early discussion of the intersectionality of race, class, and gender.

Lorde was very vocal about her issues with the first world/white feminist movement and actively worked to confront race-related issues.

Links:

Mary Oliver (1935-2019)

  • 1935 – 2019
  • Won the National Book Award  and the Pulitzer Prize
  • Her work is inspired by nature

Mary Oliver is a well renown American poet. She was declared America’s best-selling poet in 2007. She also won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (for her 5th collection of poetry called American Primitive).

Most of her work focuses on themes of nature and the natural world. Oliver was influenced by both Whitman and Thoreau, as is seen in her clear and poignant discussions of nature. She’s also been compared to Emily Dickinson, as Oliver’s work leans toward solitude and inner thoughts, with a combination of dark introspection with joyous release.

Mary Oliver would often go for walks for inspiration and to help her writing. She rarely gave interviews and preferred for her work to speak for itself. But in a rare interview she said, “When things are going well, you know, the walk does not get rapid or get anywhere: I finally just stop, and write. That’s a successful walk!”

In the late 1950’s, Oliver met Molly Malone Cook, a photographer, and they became life long partners.

One quote that was all over the internet a while ago was:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

It’s from her poem The Summer Day (you can read it here), and it’s much more about strolling through nature and appreciating the little things than grand adventures.

Links:


Final thoughts

All these women are incredible and I encourage you to check out their work. All of them shaped the literary world and how we view the world.

Have you read any of these poets’ work?

I hope you’re learned something new and maybe discovered a new poet to read. Now that it’s the last week of Poetry month, what new poets did you discover this month?

Who would you add to this list of classic women poets?

I would love to hear your thoughts in a comment below

Poetry is the way

This is a quote from Audre Lorde, from her essay called Poetry is not a Luxury.

Quote by Audre Lorde, “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”

Have you read any of Audre Lorde’s essays? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

If you’re interested, you can read an excerpt from the same essay here.

The Selected Works of Audre Lorde – Summary

Here is the book summary from Goodreads:

A definitive selection of Audre Lorde’s “intelligent, fierce, powerful, sensual, provocative, indelible” (Roxane Gay) prose and poetry, for a new generation of readers.

Self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde is an unforgettable voice in twentieth-century literature, and one of the first to center the experiences of black, queer women. This essential reader showcases her indelible contributions to intersectional feminism, queer theory, and critical race studies in twelve landmark essays and more than sixty poems—selected and introduced by one of our most powerful contemporary voices on race and gender, Roxane Gay.

Copyright © 1977 by Audre Lorde (for this essay).

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

Poetry is not a luxury

Excerpt from Selected Works by Audre Lorde

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book Selected Words of Audre Lorde by Audre Lorde, from the essay Poetry is Not a Luxury.

The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized. This is poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are—until the poem—nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt. That distillation of experience from which true poetry springs births thought as dream births concept, as feeling births idea, as knowledge births (precedes) understanding.

As we learn to bear the intimacy of scrutiny and to flourish within it, as we learn to use the products of that scrutiny for power within our living, those fears which rule our lives and form our silences begin to lose their control over us.

For each of us as women, there is a dark place within, where hidden and growing our true spirit rises, “beautiful/and tough as chestnut/stanchions against (y)our nightmare of weakness/” and of impotence.

These places of possibility within ourselves are dark because they are ancient and hidden; they have survived and grown strong through that darkness. Within these deep places, each one of us holds an incredible reserve of creativity and power, of unexamined and unrecorded emotion and feeling. The women’s place of power within each of us is neither white nor surface; it is dark, it is ancient, and it is deep.

When we view living in the european mode only as a problem to be solved, we rely solely upon our ideas to make us free, for those were what the white fathers told us were precious.

But as we come more into touch with our own ancient, non-european consciousness of living as a situation to be experienced and interacted with, we learn more and more to cherish our feelings, and to respect those hidden sources of our power from where true knowledge and, therefore lasting action comes.

At this point in time, I believe that women carry within ourselves the possibility for fusion of these two approaches to necessary for survival, and we come closest to this combination in our poetry. I speak here of poetry as a revelatory distillation of experience, not the sterile word play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word poetry to mean—in order to cover a desperate wish for imagination without insight.

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.

As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas. They become a safe-house for that difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action. Right now, I could name at least ten ideas I would have found intolerable or incomprehensible and frightening, except as they came after dreams and poems. This is not idle fantasy, but a disciplined attention to the true meaning of “it feels right to me.” We can train ourselves to respect our feelings and to transpose them into a language so they can be shared. And where that language does not exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it. Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.

Possibility is neither forever nor instant. It is not easy to sustain belief in its efficacy. We can sometimes work long and hard to establish on beachhead of real resistance to the deaths we are expected to live, only to have that beachhead assaulted or threatened by those canards we have been socialized to fear, or by the withdrawal of those approvals that we have been warned to seek for safety. Women see ourselves diminished or softened by the falsely benign accusations of childishness, of nonuniversality, of changeability, of sensuality. And who asks the question: Am I altering your aura, your ideas, your dreams, or am I merely moving you to temporary and reactive action? And even though the latter is no mean task, it is one that must be seen within the context of a need for true alteration of the very foundations of our lives.

The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The Black mother within each of us—the poet—whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free. Poetry coins the language to express and charter this revolutionary demand, the implementation of that freedom

Have you read this book or this essay by Audre Lorde? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

The Selected Works of Audre Lorde – Summary

Here is the book summary from Goodreads:

A definitive selection of Audre Lorde’s “intelligent, fierce, powerful, sensual, provocative, indelible” (Roxane Gay) prose and poetry, for a new generation of readers.

Self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde is an unforgettable voice in twentieth-century literature, and one of the first to center the experiences of black, queer women. This essential reader showcases her indelible contributions to intersectional feminism, queer theory, and critical race studies in twelve landmark essays and more than sixty poems—selected and introduced by one of our most powerful contemporary voices on race and gender, Roxane Gay.

Copyright © 1977 by Audre Lorde (for this essay).

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

I feel, therefore I can be free

This is a quote from the essay Poetry is Not a Luxury by Audre Lorde.

Quote by Audre Lorde, “I feel, therefore I can be free.”

Have you read this essay by Audre Lorde? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

If you’re interested, you can read an excerpt from the book here.

The Selected Works of Audre Lorde – Summary

Here is the book summary from Goodreads:

A definitive selection of Audre Lorde’s “intelligent, fierce, powerful, sensual, provocative, indelible” (Roxane Gay) prose and poetry, for a new generation of readers.

Self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde is an unforgettable voice in twentieth-century literature, and one of the first to center the experiences of black, queer women. This essential reader showcases her indelible contributions to intersectional feminism, queer theory, and critical race studies in twelve landmark essays and more than sixty poems—selected and introduced by one of our most powerful contemporary voices on race and gender, Roxane Gay.

Copyright © 1977 by Audre Lorde (for this essay).

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

When I dare to be powerful

This is a quote from the book The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde.

Quote by Audre Lorde, “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less important whether or not I am unafraid.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

If you’re interested, you can read an excerpt from the book here.

The Cancer Journals – Summary

Here is the book summary from Goodreads:

Moving between journal entry, memoir, and exposition, Audre Lorde fuses the personal and political as she reflects on her experience coping with breast cancer and a radical mastectomy.

First published over forty years ago, The Cancer Journals is a startling, powerful account of Audre Lorde’s experience with breast cancer and mastectomy. Long before narratives explored the silences around illness and women’s pain, Lorde questioned the rules of conformity for women’s body images and supported the need to confront physical loss not hidden by prosthesis. Living as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Lorde heals and re-envisions herself on her own terms and offers her voice, grief, resistance, and courage to those dealing with their own diagnosis. Poetic and profoundly feminist, Lorde’s testament gives visibility and strength to women with cancer to define themselves, and to transform their silence into language and action.

Copyright © 1980 by Audre Lorde.

More details can be found here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

The love of women healed me

Excerpt from The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde

Photo by Vonecia Carswell | Accessed on Unsplash.com

This is an excerpt from the book The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde.

And my friends, who flooded me with love and concern and appreciation and relief gave me so much energy that for those first 48 hours I really felt as if I was done with death and pain, and even loss, and that I had for some unknown reason been very very lucky. I was filled with a surety that everything was going to be all right, in just those indeterminate phrases. But it was downhill from there.

On the morning of the third day, the pain returned home bringing all of its kinfolk. Not that any single one of them was overwhelming, but just that all in concert, or even in small repertory groups, they were excruciating. There were constant ones and intermittent ones. There were short sharp and long dull and various combinations of the same ones. The muscles in my back and right should began to screech as if they’d been pulled apart and now were coming back to life slowly and against their will. My chest wall was beginning to ache and burn and stab by turns. My breast which was no longer there would hurt as if it were being squeezed in a vice. That was perhaps the worst pain of all, because it would come with a full complement of horror that I was to be forever reminded of my loss by suffering in a part of me which was no longer there. I suddenly seemed to get weaker rather than stronger. The euphoria and numbing effects of the anesthesia were beginning to subside.

My brain felt like grey mush—I hadn’t had to think much for the past two days. Just about the time that I started to feel the true quality of the uphill climb before me—of adjustment to a new body, a new time span, a possible early death—the pains hit. The pain grew steadily worse and I grew more and more furious because nobody had every talked about the physical pain. I had thought the emotional and psychological pain would be the worst, but it was the physical pain that seemed to be doing me in, or so I wrote at the time.

Feeling was returning to the traumatized area at the same time as I was gradually coming out of physical and emotional shock. my voices, those assorted pieces of myself that guided me between the operations were settling back into their melded quieter places, and a more and more conscious part of me was struggling for ascendancy, and not at all liking what she was finding/feeling.

In a way, therefore, the physical pain was power, for it kept that conscious part of me away from the full flavour of my fear and loss, consuming me, or rather wearing me down for the next two weeks. That two week period of time seems like an age to me now, because so many different changes passed through me. Actually the course of my psychic and physical convalescence moved quite quickly.

I do not know why. I do know that there was a tremendous amount of love and support flowing into me from the women around me, and it felt like being bathed in a continuous tide of positive energies, even when sometimes I wanted a bit of negative silence to complement the pain inside of me.

But support will always have a special and vividly erotic set of image/meanings for me now, one of which is floating upon a sea within a ring of women like warm bubbles keeping me afloat upon the surface of that sea. I can feel the texture of inviting water just beneath their eyes, and do not fear it. It is the sweet smell of their breath and laughter and voices calling my name that gives me volition, helps me remember I want to turn away from looking down. These images flow quickly, the tangible floods of energy rolling off these women towards me that I converted into power to heal myself.

There is so much false spirituality around us these days, calling itself goddess-worship or “the way.” It is false because too cheaply bought and little understood, but most of all because it does not lend, but rather saps, that energy we need to do our work. So when an example of the real power of healing love comes along such as this one, it is difficult to use the same words to talk about it because so many of our best and most erotic words have been so cheapened.

Perhaps I can say this all more simply; I say the love of women healed me.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

The Cancer Journals – Summary

Here is the book summary from Goodreads:

Moving between journal entry, memoir, and exposition, Audre Lorde fuses the personal and political as she reflects on her experience coping with breast cancer and a radical mastectomy.

First published over forty years ago, The Cancer Journals is a startling, powerful account of Audre Lorde’s experience with breast cancer and mastectomy. Long before narratives explored the silences around illness and women’s pain, Lorde questioned the rules of conformity for women’s body images and supported the need to confront physical loss not hidden by prosthesis. Living as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Lorde heals and re-envisions herself on her own terms and offers her voice, grief, resistance, and courage to those dealing with their own diagnosis. Poetic and profoundly feminist, Lorde’s testament gives visibility and strength to women with cancer to define themselves, and to transform their silence into language and action.

Copyright © 1980 by Audre Lorde.

More details can be found here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

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