In a new collection, She is Fierce, Anthologist Ana Sampson has collected 150 bold, brave and beautiful poems written by women. Here, she shares some of her favourite female poets.
It’s an exciting time for poetry. Performances are attracting huge audiences; book sales are booming; some of today’s biggest online superstars are poets. Women are at the forefront of this movement: winning prizes, headlining festivals, topping bestseller lists and connecting with thousands of readers in digital spaces. It has not, however, always been so.
Anthologies have traditionally been dominated by male voices, seasoned with a mere scattering of women – usually, the same few names. For many centuries women daring to trespass in the ‘male’ arena of literature were heartily disapproved of. More recently, it has still often been hard for women to get their work taken seriously.
Despite limitations imposed on them, female poets have considered every possible subject: science and our magnificent universe; politics and protest; bodies and belief; myths and mental health; war and displacement; the natural world and the complexity of relationships. Here are some of the talented and exciting women you should be reading now.
The dialect and folklore of her native West Midlands ring out in Liz Berry’s wonderful first collection Black Country. The poems form a choir of persuasive different voices: strange girls, strong women and speaking spirits, from the gently nostalgic ‘5th Dudley Girl Guides’ to the greedily gulped skies of ‘Bird’. Her 2018 pamphlet The Republic of Motherhood is a searing, beautiful look at new motherhood – the award-winning title poem, ‘Horse Heart’ and ‘Sky Birth’ are especially evocative.
Hera Lindsay Bird
A few of her sharply witty poems have gone viral, including the brilliant ‘Monica’. Yes, it’s about everyone’s favourite uptight sitcom chef, Monica Geller, and it’s incisive both about said Monica and the difficulty of love. Her books Hera Lindsay Bird and Pamper Me to Hell and Back are crammed with scathing, hilarious and moving poems you will want to read to your friends and stick on the fridge. ‘Love Comes Back’ is a tender poem about the dear departed Windows 95 and boasts antique disco balls and haunted board games among its fabulous images, and other gems include ‘Having Walked Out On Everyone I Ever Said I Loved’ and ‘I have come back from the dead to tell you that I love you’.
Helen’s poems are full of fun and magic, and range from verses about the ghost of Emily Dickinson to the tale of a man who falls in love with a blue cooker. Her style is playful and inventive, and she deserves to be more widely enjoyed. ‘Recipe for a Poet’ is brilliant fun, and ‘The City’ is a gorgeous poem to read when you’re in need of courage. ‘A Few Home Truths’ has got to be the only poem ever to reference Bon Jovi’s second best herbalist, and ‘Lacing Boots’ captures the breakneck joy of a rebellious playtime canter with your best friend perfectly.
Charlotte Mew wrote through both the Victorian and Modernist eras and her tragic life story adds poignancy to her poetry. She wrestled with her faith, the incarceration in asylums of her siblings and her family’s financial struggles, and eventually – devastated by the deaths of her mother and beloved sister – committed suicide by drinking bleach. Her poems can utterly break your heart: ‘The Trees are Down’, ‘The Call’, ‘May 1915’ and the uncharacteristically jaunty ‘Epitaph’ are wonderful.
The students at Oxford Spires Academy speak thirty different languages, and many of them have been displaced from their homelands. Poet Kate Clanchy teaches them and has gathered their work in this spectacular volume: raw, heartfelt and accomplished, these are poems that richly deserve the wide audience they are now reaching. Aisha Borja’s ‘Bridge’, Shukria Rezaei’s ‘A Glass of Tea’ and Rukiya Katun’s ‘Sylhet’ are among the finest.
Please don’t stop reading there! Other incredible women poets (both from previous centuries and writing today) include Jenny Joseph (SO much more than just ‘Warning’), Yrsa Daley Ward (and beg, borrow or steal her remarkable memoir The Terrible), Alice Walker, Frances Cornford, Kathryn Simmonds (The Visitations is fabulous), Amy Lowell, Marianne Moore, Vahni Capildeo, Greta Bellamacina, Vita Sackville-West, Rebecca Elson, Jackie Kay, Sara Teasdale, Pauli Murray and so many more.