Five Must-Read Poems by Phenomenal Women

These powerful and often devastating feminist poems by must-know female writers are a great way to feel inspired during the quarantine. This list was difficult to compile because of the incredible amount of talented female poets out there! I included a few lesser-known writers here to encourage you to further research their work; it’s always important to support women authors and have our stories told. I’m here to remind you of the power in poetry and womanhood! 

  1. Margaret Atwood is a very prolific author of many incredible books, including The Handmaid’s Tale (which is also an amazing show on Hulu if you haven’t watched) and over fifteen books of poetry. In this poem, Helen of Troy is trapped in a society that imposes skewed ideas of what it means to be an "ideal woman", yet she ironically finds power and control through pole-dancing, a job often stigmatized as invalid, impure, and unwomanly. Atwood flips the story, exposing the BS in common ideas of self-respect and womanhood; Helen of Troy, the ‘ideal’ woman, the woman whose face “launched a thousand ships,” is a sex worker. 

     

     

    "The world is full of women

    who’d tell me I should be ashamed of myself

    if they had the chance. Quit dancing.

    Get some self-respect

    and a day job.

    Right. And minimum wage,

    and varicose veins, just standing

    in one place for eight hours

    behind a glass counter

    bundled up to the neck, instead of 

    naked as a meat sandwich.

    Selling gloves, or something.

    Instead of what I do sell.

    You have to have talent 

    to peddle a thing so nebulous

    and without material form.

    Exploited, they’d say. Yes, any way

    you cut it, but I’ve a choice

    of how, and I’ll take the money.

     

    I do give value.

    Like preachers, I sell vision,

    like perfume ads, desire

    or its facsimile. Like jokes

    or war, it’s all in the timing.

    I sell men back their worse suspicions:

    that everything’s for sale,

    and piecemeal. They gaze at me and see

    a chain-saw murder just before it happens,

    when thigh, ass, inkblot, crevice, tit, and nipple

    are still connected.

    Such hatred leaps in them,

    my beery worshipers! That, or a bleary

    hopeless love. Seeing the rows of heads 

    and upturned eyes, imploring

    but ready to snap at my ankles,

    I understand floods and earthquakes, and the urge 

    to step on ants. I keep the beat,

    and dance for them because

    they can’t. The music smells like foxes,

    crisp as heated metal

    searing the nostrils

    or humid as August, hazy and languorous

    as a looted city the day after,

    when all the rape’s been done

    already, and the killing,

    and the survivors wander around

    looking for garbage

    to eat, and there’s only a bleak exhaustion.

    Speaking of which, it’s the smiling

    tires me out the most. 

    This, and the pretense

    that I can’t hear them.

    And I can’t, because I’m after all

    a foreigner to them.

    The speech here is all warty gutturals,

    obvious as a slab of ham,

    but I come from the province of the gods

    where meanings are lilting and oblique.

    I don’t let on to everyone,

    but lean close, and I’ll whisper:

    My mother was raped by a holy swan.

    You believe that? You can take me out to dinner. 

    That’s what we tell all the husbands.

    There sure are a lot of dangerous birds around.

     

    Not that anyone here

    but you would understand.

    The rest of them would like to watch me

    and feel nothing. Reduce me to components

    as in a clock factory or abattoir.

    Crush out the mystery.

    Wall me up alive

    in my own body. 

    They’d like to see through me, 

    but nothing is more opaque

    than absolute transparency.

    Look – my feet don’t hit the marble!

    Like breath or a balloon, I’m rising,

    I hover six inches in the air

    in my blazing swan-egg of light.

    You think I’m not a goddess?

    Try me.

    This is a torch song.

    Touch me and you’ll burn." 

     

    From Morning in the Burned House by Margaret Atwood. Copyright © 1995 by Margaret Atwood.

  2. 2. How to Triumph Like A Girl by Ada Limón

    Ada Limón is a contemporary female poet who has authored five books of beautiful poetry. This poem is special because of its themes of self-love and bodily autonomy; she flips the phrase “like a girl” in a positive light, and the connection of the narrator’s body to a racehorse brings power to the feminine experience. 

     

    "I like the lady horses best,

    how they make it all look easy,

    like running 40 miles per hour

    is as fun as taking a nap, or grass.

    I like their lady horse swagger,

    after winning. Ears up, girls, ears up!

    But mainly, let's be honest, I like

    that they're ladies. As if this big

    dangerous animal is also a part of me,

    that somewhere inside the delicate

    skin of my body, there pumps

    an 8-pound female horse heart,

    giant with power, heavy with blood.

    Don't you want to believe it?

    Don't you want to lift my shirt and see

    the huge beating genius machine

    that thinks, no, it knows,

    it's going to come in first."

     

    From Bright Dead Things (Milkweed Editions, 2015). Copyright © 2015 by Ada Limón.

  3. 3. Dead Girl Gang Bang by Cate Marvin

    Cate Marvin is an author I recently discovered. I admire her immensely for the fearless, powerful vulnerability of her writing. This poem is especially moving in its incredible demonstration of raw emotion. It beautifully articulates feelings of searing, life-long anger after the horrific experience of sexual assault. It really does speak for itself. **Sexual assault trigger warning**

     

    "Though I can’t recall your last name

     

    now, Howie, I’ve been penciling myself in

      to your way back then, way back

    when, in your gangbangland, she was

     

      loose and gone, struggling up on a limb 

    to raise herself off from your bed, but lost, 

    fell back, let the all of you in again. Said 

      just trying to get out your room 

     

    was no use since she’d got her own

    self in. Curbside-mind, I venture

     

    you are still alive. Wondering what she’d

        think of that, but, then, I don’t

     

    know, can a ghost think when its body’s shot 

      itself in the head? Hell, just thinking about

    it makes me wish I were dead. Just

     

    some girl, you, then you letting your friends 

     

    shovel their coal-selves up into her, just some 

       person. I knew. Her mother’s now offering

    a twenty-percent discount for crystal

     

      healing therapy on her website. In high school, 

    she was a calm mother, dull job as telephone

    operator, back in that town her dead

        daughter and I always swore we

     

       would leave, back in that town dead to me, 

     

    and me, I marry a man who mocks

        me for crying. We-we-we, he calls out,

     

    snickering in the gloom. Yet still I wear the dead 

        girl’s perfume. And I’ve got an accident

    to report. Because it was all our centers,

     

    uninvited, you rucked up inside, then bade your 

    friends park their reeking selves in the garage

    of her feminine. What did you call it

     

    back then? You balding fuck, you’ve forgot. 

      Sloppy seconds. Forgot her slippage, eyes dead

    drunk spirals, face some fluid spilling down

    your sheets. I’ve been where she’s been,

     

    and I can be where you are now, switch my hips,

      sashay into your office to see you any day now,

    wearing her perfume. What pack animal

    would you choose to be in your next life?

     

    Every day, the marsupial clouds grow

       hungrier for our reunion, the reunion I’ve been

    packing for all my life. There is a swing set

     

    and a girl in a dress who doesn’t know about this 

    next. First, she’s pretty. Finally, she’s done for. 

       So I took some pills to forget I knew you last 

    as friend. Then I learned the ways of your wiles,

    how you did my girl who’s now dead in."

     

    Poetry (February 2015)

     

  4. 4. A water woman has no body by Lisa Ciccarello

    In this poem, Lisa Ciccarello (another poet I happily discovered recently) discusses the everyday battles of womanhood, dealing with themes of the female body and nature and just existing as a woman in a pressurized society. Motherhood is a touching topic here, as it exposes generational struggles as well.

     

    "Emptiness is a blessing:

    it can’t be owned if it doesn’t exist.

     

    *

    My father said to bloom but never fruit

     

    a small trickle 

    eating its way through stone.

     

    *

    I am one kind of alive:

    I see everything the water sees.

     

    I told you a turn was going to come 

    & turn the tower did.

     

    What are the master’s tools 

    but a way to dismantle him.

     

    *

    Who will replace the blood of my mother in me—

    a cold spring rising.

     

    She told me a woman made of water 

    can never crack.

     

    Of her defeat, she said

    this is nothing"

     

    Copyright © 2017 by Lisa Ciccarello. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 11, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.

  5. My list of women poets and their compelling feminist poems would not be complete without Anne Sexton. Much like the other poems in her prolific collection, this one discusses the taboo topic of the female body relating to self-love and freedom. The main ideas are a bit more obscure than the other poems here but nonetheless moving.

     

    "Everyone in me is a bird.

    I am beating all my wings.   

    They wanted to cut you out   

    but they will not.

    They said you were immeasurably empty   

    but you are not.

    They said you were sick unto dying   

    but they were wrong.

    You are singing like a school girl.   

    You are not torn.

     

    Sweet weight,

    in celebration of the woman I am

    and of the soul of the woman I am

    and of the central creature and its delight   

    I sing for you. I dare to live.

    Hello, spirit. Hello, cup.

    Fasten, cover. Cover that does contain.   

    Hello to the soil of the fields.

    Welcome, roots.

     

    Each cell has a life.

    There is enough here to please a nation.

    It is enough that the populace own these goods.   

    Any person, any commonwealth would say of it,   

    'It is good this year that we may plant again   

    and think forward to a harvest.

    A blight had been forecast and has been cast out.'

    Many women are singing together of this:   

    one is in a shoe factory cursing the machine,   

    one is at the aquarium tending a seal,   

    one is dull at the wheel of her Ford,   

    one is at the toll gate collecting,

    one is tying the cord of a calf in Arizona,   

    one is straddling a cello in Russia,

    one is shifting pots on the stove in Egypt,

    one is painting her bedroom walls moon color,   

    one is dying but remembering a breakfast,   

    one is stretching on her mat in Thailand,   

    one is wiping the ass of her child,

    one is staring out the window of a train   

    in the middle of Wyoming and one is   

    anywhere and some are everywhere and all   

    seem to be singing, although some can not   

    sing a note.

     

    Sweet weight,

    in celebration of the woman I am

    let me carry a ten-foot scarf,

    let me drum for the nineteen-year-olds,

    let me carry bowls for the offering

    (if that is my part).

    Let me study the cardiovascular tissue,

    let me examine the angular distance of meteors,   

    let me suck on the stems of flowers

    (if that is my part).

    Let me make certain tribal figures

    (if that is my part).

    For this thing the body needs

    let me sing

    for the supper,   

    for the kissing,   

    for the correct   

    yes."

     

    Anne Sexton, “In Celebration of My Uterus” from The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981). Copyright © 1981 by Linda Gray Sexton and Loring Conant, Jr.