- What is a poem anyway?
- Poet, lady poet, poetess…?
- Writers vs poets
- The very first female poet
- Ten of the world’s most famous female poets
Cast as ‘more deadly than the male’ in Rudyard Kipling's famous ‘The Female of the Species’ poem, women have certainly created some of the most compelling, gripping, emotionally-charged and eloquent poetry in existence. Does that make them deadly? Perhaps. Does it make them awesome? Definitely. 💅
From Mesopotamian princesses to ancient Greek thinkers and those sold into slavery to modern-day slam artists, women have paved the way, pioneered and pushed the boundaries of poetry throughout the ages.
Let’s take a look at the history of the poem and some of the world’s most famous female poets that stand behind this ancient art form.
What is a poem anyway?
There is no easy answer to this question. Often ambiguous in nature, poems are different things to different people at different times. With no definitive rules at play – they can rhyme but they don’t have to, they can be long or they can be short, they can follow a rhythm throughout or bounce between beats – it's almost as if they are willfully elusive. 🤔
Moreover, unless you actively seek them out, poems seem to disappear from view as you grow older. As a young child, your teachers will introduce you to simple rhyme and rhythm via books in the school library while your parents may have calmed you to sleep with lullabies and alike. For some, poetry still features as part of their English Language GCSE but its presence begins to noticeably fade.
As we age, time feels less abundant, efficiency becomes paramount and brevity is crowned king in a world of limited character counts. It is perhaps no wonder that the seemingly flippant, often inaccessible, sometimes fragmented and occasionally baffling world of poetry should feel a little jarring and superfluous.
So, what is poetry’s unique offering? How has it survived the ages so well? Is it the deep feelings, stunning imagery, intense lyricism, gentle reflections, and eloquent wit? Perhaps. But these qualities are drip-fed to us via other art forms and technologies including novels, and visual art – even Netflix and Twitter can deliver epic storytelling and pithy epigrams respectively. 📺
At their best, poems afford the writer a freedom unknown in other forms of authorship – the effortless malleability of language, the playfulness of writing, and the visual quality of words on a page are all tools at a poet's disposal.
The writer's freedom is then matched by the reader’s. Freedom of interpretation is woven into the very fabric of poetry. Although liberating, this room for individual meaning-making often requires more work, more self-motivation and a willingness to hunt for clarity.
Perhaps the thing that makes poetry so elusive is also the key to its power: ambiguity. The very fact that poems are hard to reach is what makes them inextinguishable. A poem plays with our patterns of thought, it can jolt us out of habitual cognition and make us think critically and see the familiar anew. 🧠
Poet, lady poet, poetess…?
What’s in a name? There are plenty to choose from when it comes to people who write poetry – bard, minstrel, muse, poetaster (no, not potato), rhymester and versifier – so, what's wrong with ‘lady poet’ or ‘poetess’?
Much like the more modern and equally controversial ‘girl boss’, the terms ‘lady poet’ and ‘poetess’ perpetuate the notion that everyone is male unless specified otherwise; that positions or titles are originally and inherently male; and that anyone holding that title who doesn’t identify as male is automatically ‘other’ or ‘secondary’. 🙅
Gendered language like this only serves to create unnecessary divisions within an otherwise coherent set of people – poets. Yes, we are here to talk about female poets today – women are still woefully underrepresented and thus benefit from being singled out for recognition – but their membership to the group ‘poets’ should and does remain unaffected by that fact.
Writers vs poets
So, are famous female writers the same as famous female poets? What makes a poet different from a writer? ✍️
Here, again, we are straying dangerously close to a larger and more complicated debate about what constitutes a poem and therefore its creator. Perhaps we should enlist the help of a poet to set us straight:
“What makes you a poet is a gift for language, an ability to see into the heart of things, and an ability to deal with important unconscious material. When all these things come together, you’re a poet. But there isn’t one little gimmick that makes you a poet. There isn’t any formula for it.” – Erica Jong
Moving forward – for the sake of simplicity and our shared wish to reach the end of this article before reaching ‘definition fatigue’ – let's agree to refer to poets as a subset of the all-encompassing group that is writers. 📚
The very first female poet
Although Chaucer occupies a prominent place in the English literary canon – having been referred to as the "father of English poetry" ever since the end of the 14th century – it is widely understood that the first female poet, indeed the world’s first known author, walked the earth long before Chaucer was but a twinkle in his mother's eye, and, she was female. 💁
Enheduanna – a princess, priestess and poet who lived in the 23rd century BCE in ancient Mesopotamia – composed several works of literature including two hymns to the Mesopotamian love goddess Inanna, the myth of Inanna and Ebih, and a collection of 42 temple hymns. She is also rumoured to have taught other women at the temple how to write.
The fact that Enheduanna is a named poet is significant due to the fact that others undoubtedly came before her but suffered from anonymity. Even so, she is still almost entirely unknown in the modern-day and her achievements are often largely overlooked.
Enheduanna’s written works are deeply personal, containing numerous biographical features. In her, we see a powerful figure of great creativity, whose passionate praise of the goddess of love continues to echo through time, 4000 years after first being carved into a clay tablet. 😮
Ten of the world’s most famous female poets
As we have been writing poetry since Mesopotamian times, narrowing down our list of famous female poets to just ten is going to be a challenge, to say the least. A list of the best contemporary female poets or best modern female poets alone could keep us busy for weeks!
So – in the knowledge that we will be missing many a good one out – let's attempt to span eras and nations to compile a list of the world's most famous female poets that somewhat represents this ancient tradition, its fantastic variety and the many great women who have contributed to its progress to date. 👇
Sappho, c. 630 – c. 570 BC, was an ancient Greek poet. Sometimes referred to as ‘The Poetess’, just as Homer was ‘The Poet', she is rumoured to have written over 10,000 lines of poetry although sadly only around 650 of those survive today.
Little is known for sure about her life, family and experiences but her poetry is notable for adopting the viewpoint of a specific person, in contrast to the earlier epic poets who present themselves more as ‘conduits of divine inspiration’.
Best known for her lyric poetry, written to be accompanied by music, her sometimes playful, sometimes anguished songs about her susceptibility to the graces of younger women have somewhat cemented her position as one of the earliest feminist heroines and gay role models to have walked the earth. 🏺
#2 Phillis Wheatley
Phillis Wheatley, 1753 – 1784, was the first African American and the second woman to publish a book of poems. Born around 1753 in Gambia, Africa, she was captured by slave traders and brought to America at just seven years old. Upon arrival, she was sold to the Wheatley family in Boston, Massachusetts.
The Wheatley family educated her and within sixteen months of her arrival in America, she could read the Bible, Greek and Latin classics, and British literature. She also studied astronomy and geography. At age fourteen, Wheatley began to write poetry, publishing her first poem in 1767. 🖋️
Wheatley’s poems reflected several influences on her life including her African heritage as well as Religion. Wheatley’s opposition to slavery heightened as grew older and she was ultimately granted her freedom. Sadly she never escaped the grips of poverty and died at the young age of 31.
#3 Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1806 – 1861, was among the most admired female poets of the English-speaking world in the 19th century. Held in high critical esteem by many, she was celebrated for her independence and the courage of her convictions.
Like many of the greats, Barrett started young. Before she was 10 years old, she had read the histories of England, Greece, and Rome; several of Shakespeare’s plays and passages from ‘Paradise Lost’. 🤓
Although plagued by poor health and bad luck throughout her life, Barett was a prolific author and poet. Her longstanding reputation rests chiefly upon her love poems, ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’ and ‘Aurora Leigh’, the latter now considered an early feminist text.
#4 Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson, 1830 – 1886, lived an introverted life and it was only after her death that her nearly 1800 poems came to light. During her life, she was known as an eccentric and few people knew of her immense talent.
Only 10 of her nearly 1,800 poems are known to have been published in her lifetime. Devoted to private pursuits, she sent hundreds of poems to friends and correspondents while apparently keeping the greater number to herself. 😯
Much of her work was influenced by and suggestive of hymns and ballads, with lines of three or four stresses. She freely ignored the usual rules of versification and grammar of her day and was exceptionally bold and original in terms of content too – writing with a haunting personal voice and lack of pomp.
#5 Sarojini Naidu
Sarojini Naidu, 1879 – 1949, was an Indian political activist and poet. An advocate for civil rights, women's emancipation, and anti-imperialistic ideas, she was an important figure in India's struggle for independence from colonial rule.
A child prodigy, Sarojini Naidu topped the matriculation examination at Madras University at the age of just 12. Her father wanted her to become a mathematician or scientist but she was more interested in poetry.
Naidu’s poems talked of children, nature, love and death. Known as the ‘Nightingale of India’ due to her lyrical poems rich in imagery, she was also an activist who followed Mahatma Gandhi and fought for social justice.
#6 Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou, 1928 – 2014, is one of the most famous black female poets of all time. Not just a poet, she was also a memoirist, civil rights activist, screenwriter and director during her 50-year career, all of which led to her receiving dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees. 🎓
Angelou’s most famous work, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’, deals with her own childhood trauma in an unflinching account which chronicles how she lost the ability to speak, remained mute for five years, but then ultimately developed a love for language.
Angelou was also a prolific and widely-read poet, and her poetry has often been lauded more for its depictions of Black beauty, the strength of women and demanding social justice for all than for its poetic virtue. Still popular and resonant today, her poems have been called the ‘anthems of African Americans’.
#7 Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath, 1932 – 1963, is widely regarded as a pioneer in the genre of Confessional poetry – characterised by direct, colloquial speech rhythms and images that reflect intense psychological experiences, often culled from childhood or battles with mental illness or breakdown.
Her first poetry collection ‘The Colossus and Other Poems’ was published in 1960. Tragically, just three years later, Plath committed suicide. Some of her best-known poems were written in the months leading up to her suicide which were then published after her death as part of her renowned poetry collection ‘Ariel’.
Plath's writing and poetry are known for their intense coupling of violent or disturbing imagery with playful use of alliteration and rhyme as well as an unrivalled talent for depicting the inner workings of the human mind with biting honesty. Perhaps that is why she remains one of the most popular female poets in the English language today. 💫
#8 Fanny Choi
Franny Choi, 1989 –, writes poems, essays, books and screenplays and hosts a podcast. She is the author of two poetry collections, ‘Soft Science’ and ‘Floating, Brilliant, Gone’, as well as a chapbook, ‘Death by Sex Machine’.
Choi’s fascination with poetry began when she was around eight years old. She enjoyed the action of ordering words together in such a way that they provided profound meaning. As her love for poetry grew, she began to identify and use poetry as a means of coping with real-life experiences. 🚸
As well as winning awards for her spoken word and slam poetry, Choi promotes social activism through her writing focussing on topics such as institutionalised racism in the United States, feminism and queer Asian American and Pacific Islander visibility.
#9 Kae Tempest
Kae Tempest, 1985 –, is an English spoken word performer, poet, recording artist, novelist and playwright. At the age of 16, Tempest was accepted into the BRIT School for Performing Arts and Technology in Croydon. In 2013, they won the Ted Hughes Award for their work ‘Brand New Ancients’.
Ever observant, relevant and insightful, Tempest’s works are full of unforgettable lines, statements and social commentary that make you want to press pause, just so you can savour the sentences as they get spat into the mic. 🎤
Most recently, Tempest has turned a Greek tragedy about a marooned soldier into an all-women play for the Covid era. Paradise, their Mercury-nominated adaptation of the Sophocles tragedy Philoctetes, was performed at the Olivier, the largest stage at the National Theatre in London in autumn 2021.
#10 Rupi Kaur
Rupi Kaur, 1992 –, is a poet, illustrator, photographer and author. Born in Punjab, India, she immigrated to Canada with her parents when she was four. Starting out with poems for her friends and sharing her writing anonymously in school, Kaur’s work become an internet sensation once she shared it via social media.
Her first published poetry collection, ‘Milk and Honey’, sold two million copies and was on the New York Times Best Sellers list for over 73 weeks. Her second collection, ‘The Sun and Her Flowers’, was published in 2017, and within a week, it ranked second on Amazon’s best-seller list. 🏆
Part of a new generation of poets, Kaur took matters into her own hands in the early stages of her career. Undeterred by neigh sayers, Kaur started out by self-publishing her own work – which touches on love, loss, trauma, healing, femininity, and migration – and never looked back since.Here at GoStudent, our English tutors are ready to share the wonders of language and creativity with you. Hit the link for a free trial class to help you learn more about literature or prepare for exams like GCSEs or A-Levels! 🎒