Feminist Poetry Starter Kit

Poetry is transformative: here's your reading list for the resistance.

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Art has a funny way of being able to both soothe souls and incite revolution. Poetry has the added benefit of being able to do so with fewer constraints, greater fluidity, and a particular way of facilitating communication between human souls: unlike any other genre, poems come from a place deep inside the writer to strike a place deep inside the reader. Good poems aren't uncalculated or unpolished, but they are raw and rule-breaking. They take what they can use from traditional constructions of grammar and throw the rest out. They use old words to mean new things. They string nonsense together in a way that you, somehow, will understand, perhaps not with your mind, but another part of your consciousness.

If you're a reader of poetry, you already know this. If you're not, it can be intimidating: trying to read something you're not quite sure how to read, that's in plain English, but not quite. If you're yet to develop a habit and love of reading poetry, there's never been a better time. These seminal works by feminist poets, both classics and contemporary works, might be exactly what we need in these troubling, cold times. Your new favorite might give you the strength to call your senators on the issue of the week, or just to get through the day—which for some of us, is an act of rebellion in and of itself.

And Still I Rise, Maya Angelou (1978)

You've almost certainly come across some of Angelou's poems by this point, most likely, "Phenomenal Woman." it's popular still today not least because much of it is empowering and uplifting, speaking to the most positive and shining aspects of her experience as a Black woman. Her writing is lyrical and and apt, making it a good entry point for new readers of poetry.

The Black Unicorn, Audre Lorde (1978)

From "A Litany for Survival":

"and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive"

Described by Adrienne Rich (another poet we'll get to later) as "refusing to be circumscribed by any simple identity, Audre Lorde writes as a Black woman, a mother, a daughter, a Lesbian, a feminist, a visionary; poems of elemental wildness and healing, nightmare and lucidity." Lorde wrote beautiful and important works on identity, oppression, and power, which are just as relevant today.

Diving into the Wreck, Adrienne Rich (1973)

"Diving into the Wreck" won Rich, a queer woman and influential feminist intellectual, the National Book Award fairly early in her career. Her poems cover female and lesbian experience as well as political issues of the time, including midcentury racism and the Vietnam war. Her words remain truths ripe for examination, worth revisiting today.

Fruits and Vegetables, Erica Jong (1971)

Becauses tastes differ, here is a departure in terms of style: Jong, while perhaps better known as a novelist, began her career as a poet. This collection (the one responsible for making me a poetry reader after receiving it as a Secret Snowflake gift) deals in sparseness, cutting right to the cores of womanhood and sexuality, saying little but sparing nothing.

Camp Notes and Other Writings, Mitsuye Yamada (1976)

Yamada, a Japanese immigrant and trailblazing Asian-American feminist, was interned along with her family during World War II. Her work in this collection in particular narrates that experience, not shying away from anger nor dark humour and making strong, careful use of rhythm and sound to craft imagery of life in an internment camp. With the current threat of a U.S. return to religion- and ethnicity-based registries, her words are especially potent.

Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine (2014)

Rankine's Citizen transcends genre, having been nominated for awards as both criticism and poetry, called both "protest lyric" and "art book". Rankine covers the topic of race from all angles and without unnecessary analogies, directly and masterfully addressing political and pop cultural events of the last several years, including the death of Trayvon Martin and other young Black boys and men at the hands of police. The artistry and urgency with which she does so has made waves since its publication.

Incorrect Merciful Impulses, Camille Rankine (2015)

This other Rankine (no relation) uses language differently: line breaks and abstract diction makes reading an active pursuit, leading you to eventually relinquish the need for mastery of the lines and instead to soak in the truth of the images and phrases. Rankine decidedly and sharply enters the realms of politics and history, natural and human environment, all the while leaving doors open and forcing nothing. It's fluid, gripping, and stunning.

These collections are, hopefully, just a jumping-off point: there are incredible poets filling all niches of style and subject (see the related links below for some other internet-curated favorites). Furthermore, plenty of talented and influential poets have yet to have their poems collected (such as Chicana poets and theorists Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa), or are better known for other kinds of literary work. There are lots of revolutionary feminist poets to explore, and by which to be inspired.