Have you recently received your college acceptance letter? If so, congratulations! You're headed to college, filled with the spirit of adventure and the hope of meeting new friends, and starting a pretty exciting stage in your life — and it's a very emotional time. How do you deal with all of your feelings, from intense excitement at your new horizons, to grief at leaving your old stomping-ground behind and fear of the unknown? One pretty good method, I've found, is poetry. When I left Australia to do my Master's, I took a compendium of female poets with me — and their voices, cajoling, comforting and clarifying, were my friends and helpmates long before I found any others.
Why poets? Because, as much good as novels and short stories about the college experience can do, sometimes the sudden pinpoint of an emotion or situation, in a single page, is quicker and more sustaining than elaborate narrative. It's as fast as an injection, and just as jolting: I see you, I know you, this is what you can and must do. Plus, these women of serious intellectual power are inspirational in and of themselves, without needing to read a word — if they can produce such strength, you can too. And they'll let you use them as a boost.
Here are eight poets whose work can help you make your own way at college. Get collections or just find a single poem that inspires you; it'll help you out when things get tough.
1. Anne Sexton
Nobody does searing, honest discussions of feelings like Anne Sexton. How does one become a woman? How does one handle ambition? How does one love well? It's no exaggeration to say that these questions tortured Sexton quite a lot — she attempted suicide many times and finally succeeded — but her poetry is in many ways a great guide to the dangers and deep emotions of becoming a woman.
An excerpt, from "In Celebration Of My Uterus":
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."
2. Marilyn Chin
Chin, a Hong Kong-born American poet, specializes in the poetry of women struggling with their traditions and growing into their expected roles in life. And no, you don't have to be Asian to "get" her. A lot of college life can be about challenging people's assumptions, even if they're well-meant, about what your future holds for you, culturally, economically, and spiritually. She's also an expert on the searing disconnect between generations: if your mother's ever berated you, you'll find a home in her poetry.
An excerpt, from "Millennium, Six Songs":
"They gave you a title, but you were too proud to wear it
They gave you the paterland, but you were too lazy to farm it
Your condo is leaking, but you’re too angry to repair it
Your dress has moth holes, but you’re too sentimental to toss it
You’re too bored to play the lute, it hangs on the wall like an ornament
The piano bites you, it’s an eight-legged unfaithful dog
Love grows in the garden, but you’re too impudent to tend it
A nice Hakka boy from Ogden, so hardworking, so kind
The prayer mat is for prayer, not for catamite nipple-piercing
The Goddess wags her finger at your beautiful wasteland
A dream deferred, well, is a dream deferred"
3. Emily Dickinson
From her small New England room, always wearing white and rarely meeting any visitors, Emily Dickinson saw the whole world. Her tiny, bitty poems are incredibly on edge and alive, like vibrating wires, but also very serene: she's full of wisdom about life's brevity, loss, and canny advice about how to succeed as an adult.
"Tell all the truth"
"Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —"
4. Maya Angelou
I miss Maya Angelou, who died in 2014, as if I knew her as a person. She wrote fantastic books and autobiographies, but some of her most excellent work for young women is her poetry, which is rhythmic, persuasive, and angry at the same time. It's inspiration at its best, whether you're wanting to connect to strong, loud, indignant female voices or just celebrating your own strength.
Excerpt from "Phenomenal Woman":
"Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
5. Carol Ann Duffy
Duffy's fairytale richness touches everything: her World's Wife collection rewrites a whole host of stories from the female perspective, which ought to give you an advantage in any English Lit 101 seminar. But it's the emotional poems of the current British Poet Laureate that are particularly powerful, especially when it comes to the understanding of what you must lose to become a new person in a new place.
Excerpt, from "Grief":
"Grief, your gift, unwrapped,my empty hands made heavy,holding when they held youlike an ache; unlooked for,though my eyes stare inward nowat where you were, my star, my star;and undeserved, the perfect choicefor one with everything, humblingmy heart; unwanted, too, my small voicelost for words to thank you with; unusual,how it, given, grows to fill a day, a night,a week, a month, teaching its text,love's spinster twin, my head bowed,learning, learning; understood."
6. Adrienne Rich
Adrienne Rich was an explicitly feminist poet, and talks at great length, in many forms, about how to find your voice as a woman and a force in the world. She's political and historical but also very personal, and particularly articulate when it comes to being struck dumb by sexual awakening and new love.
An excerpt from "Tonight No Poetry Will Serve":
"Saw you walking barefoot
taking a long look
at the new moon's eyelid
sleep-fallen, naked in your dark hair
asleep but not oblivious
of the unslept unsleeping
Tonight I think
7. Maxine Kumin
Though she's mostly famous for her nature poems (and for being the friend and collaborator of Anne Sexton), Kumin was seriously on the money about some pretty startling aspects of college life. Breakups, becoming too sophisticated for your family, growing out of religions and faiths, trying to keep your bills balanced (she has a great poem called "Spree" about her mother's overspending): it's all in her poetry.
An excerpt from "Family Reunion":
"The week in August you come home,
adult, professional, aloof,
we roast and carve the fatted calf
—in our case home-grown pig, the chine
garlicked and crisped, the applesauce
hand-pressed. Hand-pressed the greengage wine."
8. Dorothy Parker
If you're petrified of disappearing into a puddle at your first college party, get some Dorothy Parker, stat. The New Yorker was one of the most famous wits of the 20th century, and could line up zingers faster than a champion barista churns out coffee. Her poetry was cynical, hilarious, and also sad and upsetting; she preaches both the virtues of being the sharpest tongue in the room, and the fight to be vulnerable too.
"The ladies men admire, I’ve heard,
Would shudder at a wicked word.
Their candle gives a single light;
They’d rather stay at home at night.
They do not keep awake till three,
Nor read erotic poetry.
They never sanction the impure,
Nor recognize an overture.
They shrink from powders and from paints ...
So far, I’ve had no complaints."
Images: Wikimedia Commons, The Poetry Foundation, The Scottish Poetry Library