“How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes!” Maya Angelou once wrote. The incredibly prolific and powerful lady is also one of the best living feminist poets around, though she hasn’t always been completely on board with the prevailing logic of the cause. “The sadness of the women’s movement is that they don’t allow the necessity of love,” she wrote. “See, I don’t personally trust any revolution where love is not allowed.” We want to join your revolution, Maya.
To Read: “Phenomenal Woman”
Post-Beat heroine (she was a “poet in residence” in Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour and co-founded the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics with Ginsberg), Anne Waldman continus to mix her experimental style, nurtured in the Outrider movement, with her own particular brand of feminism — an impolite, matter-of-fact, physical, Buddhist-flavored feminism that seeks a new world order with a winning smile. What else would you expect from Allen Ginsberg’s “spiritual wife”?
To Read: “Matriot Acts, Act I [History of Mankind]”
Carol Ann Duffy
Three years ago, Carol Ann Duffy was appointed Britain’s poet laureate. Astonishingly, she is the first woman and the first openly gay poet to serve in the position — as the Guardian put it upon the announcement: “Four hundred years of male domination came to an end today with the election of Carol Ann Duffy as poet laureate.” Her poetry has always had a strong feminist slant, particularly The World’s Wife, which gives voice to the unsung significant others of famous historical and fictional heroes. Plus, we kind of love her for being open to poetry as it pervades modern culture in every way: “The poem is a form of texting … it’s the original text. It’s a perfecting of a feeling in language – it’s a way of saying more with less, just as texting is… If you look at rapping, for example, a band like Arctic Monkeys uses lyrics in a poetic way. And using words in an inventive way is at the heart of youth culture in every way.” Hooray for poetry in all of its forms!
To Read: “Queen Kong”
Though “feminist poet” isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when we think of Margaret Atwood (“brilliant novelist” is what we come up with), maybe it should be. Though Atwood never purposefully positioned herself as being part of the feminist movement proper, it sort of crept up on her. “I began as a profoundly apolitical writer,” she once said, “but then I began to do what all novelists and some poets do: I began to describe the world around me.”
To Read: “Siren Song”
An experimental poet rooted in the Language movement, we’ve always adored Lyn Hejinian for her ability to make the everyday occurrences she describes seem lyrical and profound. As a Language poet engaged with feminist thought, she is also invested in exploring the relationship between gender and language, as Megan Smith points out in Poetic Epistemologies: Gender and Knowing in Women’s Language-Oriented Writing.
To Read: “My Life” (excerpt)
Author and activist Alice Walker, most famous for her novel The Color Purple, also happens to be a poet of some skill, and infuses her poetic work with as much feminism and pride as her prose. Though she coined the term “Womanist” to describe her relationship with gender, she is widely upheld as a symbol of feminism, particularly as it relates to African American literature and politics.
To Read: “Our Martyr”
Katha Pollitt is a serious force. She may be best known for her column, “Subject to Debate” in The Nation , which the Washington Post called “the best place to go for original thinking on the left,” but she’s also a prize-winning poet (not dinky prizes, either — a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship) and essayist. The New York Review of Books‘ Cathleen Schine described her as “a good old-fashioned feminist and leftist,” and she’s still going strong.
To Read: “In the Bulrushes”
Another Language poet with a postmodern bent, Susan Howe joins Hejinian in the “alternative” feminism camp. “Importantly,” writes critic and essayist Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “she is a feminist by virtue of her rage, including her rage at the itaisappropriation (as she sees it) of a woman writer — in the case of Gilbert and Gubar, by women; in the case of the mis- editing of Emily Dickinson, by men… Howe appears to be on the cusp between two feminisms: the one analyzing female difference, the other “feminine” difference.” So avant garde and capable of high-concept cognitive dissonance? Can’t argue with that.
To Read: “Rückenfigur”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, who writes from the Pacific Northwest, not only tackles feminism, but also delves into mythology, music, and Asian literature. As Melanie Rehak wrote, Kizer “was a feminist practically before the term existed, and she has consistently spoken out against injustice both in her work and in her life.” Indeed, as Kizer once told the Paris Review , “I remember after a reading somebody came up to me and said, I love that political poem of yours, and my husband, who was standing next to me, said, ‘Which one? They’re all political,’ and I was pleased by that. I would feel the same if she had said, ‘I love that feminist poem of yours.’ It’s a point of view, it’s a stance, it’s an attitude towards life that affects, and afflicts, everything I do. But one thing that I want to emphasize about my feminism, something that’s only become a canon of official feminism in fairly recent times, is this concern with ecology, with saving what’s left of the world. My father was an early city planner and a historic preservationist. The thing that underpins ‘A Muse of Water’ is my incorporation of my father’s concern with the environment long before the word ecologybecame fashionable. And I’ve assimilated man’s degradation of the environment as a basic feminist concern. Rape is rape, whether it is a human being or a landscape.”
To Read: “Fearful Women”
Most of Piercy’s 17 volumes of poetry and 17 novels are written from a distinctly feminist point of view, but she’s also associated with Marxism, the environmentalist movement, and other social concerns, and hopes that her work will be accessible to everyone. “I imagine I speak for a constituency, living and dead,” she says, “and that I give utterance to energy, experience, insight, words flowing from many lives. I have always desired that my poems work for others. ‘To Be of Use’ is the title of one of my favorite poems and one of my best-known books.”
To Read: “To Be Of Use“