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So You Want to Read Female Poets

So you want to read female poets? Here's eight must-read works from eight must-read authors.
So you want to read female poets? Here's eight must-read works from eight must-read authors. By Courtesy of Aiden J. Bowers/Canva
By Caroline J. Rubin, Contributing Writer

When the world feels dreary and dark, one might go to the Harvard Book Store and pick up a collection of poems. The act of reading poetry is transformative; it can bring light and optimism in the moments of greatest need. But where to start? Below is a list of eight must-read female poets — women of the past and present who have dominated the poetic arena with their brilliant imagery, careful attention to subject matter, and that unusual ability to take the reader’s breath away.

“The Carrying” by Ada Limón

Ada Limón is a contemporary American poet known for her introspective and evocative poetry that celebrates themes of resilience and female identity. Her language is lush and precise, and her poems are narratively driven and indelible. Take for instance her poem,“The Raincoat.” When the speaker sees a mother-daughter pair under an umbrella, she is awed by this scene and her newfound appreciation for her own mother’s sacrifice and dedication.

“I saw a mom take her raincoat off / and give it to her young daughter when / a storm took over in the afternoon. My god, / I thought, my whole life I’ve been under her / raincoat thinking it was somehow a marvel / that I never got wet,” Limón writes.

Her sincerity of voice makes Limón unparalleled in the poetic field. She is a writer who gracefully delineates the beauty we don't often immediately see, but should.

“What The Living Do” by Marie Howe

Also a contemporary American poet, Marie Howe is celebrated for her spiritually resonant poetry that blends personal reflection and hyper-specific details with universal themes of loss, memory, the irrevocable passage of time, and grief. Her poem, “What the Living Do,” is a beautiful memorial to her brother who passed away. The work is at once intimate and universal. Perhaps most importantly, Howe reminds us of the gift that is life: The poem’s breathtaking last line, “I am living. I remember you,” underscores these poignant themes.

“Devotions” by Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver, the best-selling poet who won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, has always been a fan-favorite poet, and for good reason. Reading her poems is potentially the best way to turn a bad day around. Much of Oliver’s work involves meditating on human interconnectedness with the natural world. The poem “Evidence” gives profound advice to the reader — “keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable” — and reflects on the lessons we can learn from observing nature, as she writes, “Among the swans there is none called the least.” Oliver’s poems are able to sum up the beauty of human existence in a way that few other poets can. This quality makes her a writer to keep returning to time and time again.

“Life on Mars” by Tracy K. Smith

A former U.S. poet laureate and current professor at Harvard University, Tracy K. Smith is known for her high-minded and cerebral poetry that juxtaposes existential musings with the mundane actions of everyday life. The larger cosmos is never far from her work, nor are surprising and subtle elements of science fiction. In her must-read poem, “Universe as Primal Scream,” Smith meditates on the unknowable in life and the mysteries that humanity has yet to solve. Smith is one of the most brilliant poets of this generation, as she tackles the existential and the uncertain with confidence.

“If I Should Have a Daughter” by Sarah Kay

Sarah Kay is a performative poet and educator, known for her spoken word poems that are imbued with emotional depth, infectious energy, humor, and sincerity of voice. Her works feel like advice from a cool, wise older sister. Listening to Kay read will leave you spellbound, enthrall you, and reaffirm your belief in yourself, love, and the undeniable strength of women. Many of her poems have been recorded and posted online, some with hundreds of thousands of views. Thus, it’s easy to find her works, such as “The Type,” which speaks to the complexity of reclaiming one’s identity as a woman independent of the male perspective.

“The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson” by Emily Dickinson

“Yet - never - in Extremity, / It asked a crumb - of me.” So goes the final lines of Dickinson’s famous poem, “Hope is the Thing with Feathers,” a favorite for memorization and classroom recitation. Dickinson left an indelible mark on the American poetic landscape. Readers cannot help but marvel at the way Dickinson reckons with the timeless themes of the human experience such as death, spirituality, and beauty while living a life of relative solitude and isolation. Dickinson was incredibly innovative and powerful; she focused on challenging the conventions and constraints of language and subject matter.

“The Complete Poems of Sappho” by Sappho

Most of the poems historians have found from Sappho exist only in fragments, but complete poems are not needed to show that she had exceptional talent. In “Fragment 16,” Sappho writes, “Some say an army of horsemen, others / Say foot soldiers, still others say a fleet / Is the finest thing on the dark earth / I say it is whatever one loves.” Desire, sensuality, and intimacy are integral to Sappho’s poetic work. Her reflections are at once intimate and distanced, and her writing is perpetually relevant and eternally gorgeous.

“The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo

Elizabeth Acevedo is a Dominican-American poet, author, and performer whose work can only be described as electric; her work exudes creativity, passion, and enthusiasm. In addition to earning national acclaim for her New York Times Bestselling book, “The Poet X,” Acevedo has wowed audiences with her spoken-word poetry. “Rat Ode,” one of Acevedo’s finest spoken-word performances, explores the task of finding beauty, meaning, and poetry in subjects that at first glance do not appear poetic, such as the rats in New York City.

“And even when they sent exterminators, set flame to garbage, half dead, and on fire, you / pushed on,” Acevedo writes. In this manner, Acevedo infuses youth and energy into poetry, examining themes of love and sex through the complexities of identity.

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