16 Feminist Poetry Collections That Everyone Needs To Read
Sometimes the thing that can be said in a thousand words is better said in 10 — as a poetry lover, that’s how I often feel, and I’m betting most (or all) of the feminist poets featured on the list below would agree. After all, as feminist icons like Elizabeth Warren and the notorious RBG have recently taught us (thanks, Twitter) there’s nothing like a good one-liner to really rile up the patriarchy. Poetry has long been a medium for artistic feminist expression, from the poems that give voice to the real experiences of women, to others that act as calls to action against female oppression and marginalization — and it’s one of the reasons I love the poetic form so much. It’s vivid and precise, it gets to the point and cuts to the quick, it can be spray painted on walls and carved into the backs of bathroom doors and plastered across telephone poles and chanted in the streets (pro tip: these are all great things to do when you’re done devouring all my favorite feminist poetry collections, below.)
If you’re ever in need of some more serious female energy — and who isn’t? — those girl power vibes are just a bookshelf away. Here are 16 feminist poetry collections that all poetry lovers need to read.
1. The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks by Gwendolyn Brooks
If you’ve ever read anything by Gwendolyn Brooks then you know she was just everything — her poems captivate and astound in both form and in substance, and her writing bears incomparable witness to a particular time and place in American culture: what life was like for an African American family living on the South Side of Chicago during the twentieth century. As a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Brooks’s writing faces racial, economic, and gender injustices head-on, and gives impassioned, strong voices to the experiences she could see were being silenced all around her.
2. The Moon is Always Female: Poems by Marge Piercy
Marge Piercy is a poet-activist with a whopping 17 collections of poetry to her name — and while all of them deal with feminist themes on some level, The Moon is Always Female is considered not only one of Piercy’s most feminist works, but also a classic of feminist literature. Her writing is as raw and angry as it is beautiful and funny, and her connection to things beyond the world — mysticism and quiet spirituality, the moon and the stars, is mesmerizing and meditative.
3. There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker
Morgan Parker’s second collection of poetry There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé is infused with politics and pop culture, and features personal poetry that calls feminists to action and challenges the status quo. Critiquing everything from modern media and current politics, to capitalism and over-consumption, to the systemic racism and sexism throughout American society, Parker’s writing is fierce, fiery and in-your-face.
4. Collected Poems, 1912-1944 by H.D.
Considered one of the best-known and most prolific women poets of the Modernist era, I still think Hilda Doolittle (pen name H.D.) is an under-sung hero of American poetry. Writing all the way back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, H.D. celebrated themes of queer sexuality and feminism in a way that was well ahead of her time. Her writing explores everything from the women of ancient mythology, to psychology, to what life was like for women at the turn of the nineteenth century.
5. The Book of a Thousand Eyes by Lyn Hejinian
Lyn Hejinian’s poetry collection The Book of a Thousand Eyes takes its inspiration from the story of Scheherazade (the virgin bride destined to die, who saved her own life by telling her murderous husband great stories, night after night after night) — so already you know wherever she’s going, it’s gonna be good. From there she takes readers on a feminist crusade through fairy tales, mythology, and lullabies, all while playing with the boundaries of poetic form and language.
6. Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire
As 2014’s Young Poet Laureate of London, and most-recently known as the writer who inspired Queen Bey, Warsan Shire is a writer who makes even the biggest skeptics of poetry want to dive in. Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth wrestles with ideas of home and displacement, immigrant and refugee stories, and speaks to experiences of trauma, politics, female strength, and perspective-altering journeys. Keep on keeping an eye on this writer.
7. Salt. by Nayyirah Waheed
Poetry, as much as I love it and it inspires me in countless ways, doesn’t often bring tears to my eyes. Nayyirah Waheed is an exception to that rule in all the best ways. Her first collection of poetry, salt., alternates between images that are hard and soft, violent and gentle, light and dark. Her poems are often short and precise, describing love and loss, light and darkness, the seen and the unseen, and they take her readers down the rabbit hole of forging one’s own unique identity.
8. The Distance of a Shout by Kishwar Naheed
A feminist Urdu poet from Pakistan, Kishwar Naheed fought to receive an education when women in Pakistan were forbidden to do so, and has since become a poet who rejects all forms of oppression, from harems to chastity to child brides, and speaks out for the rights of other women. Her collection, The Distance of a Shout , features some of Naheed’s best work in English, alongside the Urdu translations, and exhibits what a feminist powerhouse this poet really is.
9. The Black Unicorn: Poems by Audre Lorde
Fun fact: Audre Lorde’s writing career began with a poem published in Seventeen magazine when she was just a teenager herself. Since then, Lorde used her poetry to raise her voice against racism, sexism, and homophobia, stereotyping and marginalization. The Black Unicorn celebrates, honors, and defends Lorde’s myriad identities — lesbian, black woman, mother, feminist — and challenges anyone who would discriminate against her (or anyone else) to think twice.
10. The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New, 1950-1984 by Adrienne Rich
I am obsessed with basically everything Adrienne Rich has ever written, and The Fact of a Doorframe features some of her best poetry. Writing on political and feminist themes, and often describing experiences of motherhood and lesbianism, Rich’s writing is sorrowful and packs a punch. She’s the kind of poet — complex, experimental, heady, mysterious — who you need to read over and over again, because you’ll learn something new from her every time.
11. Selected Poems by U.A. Fanthorpe
Credited with transforming British poetry and paving the way for more women poets to have a voice in mainstream publishing, U.A. Fanthorpe published nine collections of poetry in her lifetime and inspired countless female poets who came after her. Selected Poems offers the best of Fanthorpe — poetry that acts as a witness to everyday life, that honors the unique intelligence of women, and that invites the reader into a conversation they won’t want to leave.
12. Camp Notes and Other Writings by Mitsuye Yamada
An activist, feminist, and poet, during World War II, Mitsuye Yamada’s Japanese immigrant family was forcibly relocated from their home in Seattle, Washington to an internment camp in Idaho. Yamada’s poetry collection, Camp Notes and Other Writings , speaks to that experience of internment — especially as a woman forced to feel like an outsider in her own country — and documents the racial violence and discrimination she and her family faced after World War II.
13. Yin by Carolyn Kizer
Writing during the 1950s, when poetry was still an aft form dominated by the white male intellectual (published poetry, anyway) Carolyn Kizer infused her work with feminist ideals, and used her poetry to bear witness to the injustices women faced every day in American life. Yin is her 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection and if you love it, you’ll also want to check out Pro Femina, which is angry and fierce.
14. The World's Wife by Carol Ann Duffy
Carol Ann Duffy is a Scottish poet and playwright who was not only the first woman, but the first openly LGBT person to be appointed Britain's Poet Laureate. So you’re basically going to want to read everything she’s written, but definitely start with The World’s Wife — her sassy, funny, and beautiful poetry collection of the imagined voices of wives, sisters, and girlfriends of famous and mythical men.
15. The Complete Collected Poems by Maya Angelou
There are so many amazing books from Maya Angelou to choose from, including her Pulitzer Prize-nominated poetry collection Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Die, so The Complete Collected Poems is perfect for anyone who wants to read ALL the strong, passionate, beautiful poetry Angelou compiled in her lifetime. An American Civil Rights activist and feminist, Angelou was definitely one of the most influential women of the 20th century.
16. Fast Speaking Woman: Chants and Essays by Anne Waldman
Anne Waldman is kind of the coolest — a post-Beat writer and performance poet who helped Allen Ginsberg found the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, Waldman has always been known for pushing the boundaries of what poetry can do. Fast Speaking Woman is an energetic and vivid collection of poetry that blends feminism and mysticism, religion and ritual, and celebrates chanting as the ultimate form of poetry and performance. Read these aloud to anyone who will listen.
Image: Lacie Slezak/Unsplash