You’ll most likely spend World Poetry Day suffering recitations of pale, stale, male verse: Wordsworth, Keats, Shakespeare. People don’t like to take risks by celebrating something not tried and tested by history, and, to give the squares their dues, it’s incredibly difficult to find female poets who’ve been seen to pass this test.
We all know why this is. It’s impossible to know how many Judith Shakespeares we lost to centuries of codpiece-swinging patriarchs; bollock-mindedly denying women education or publication.
They burned Sappho, literally for Christ’s sake. We should take a minute here to lament that. But we should also rejoice in those that kicked through all that, like boots tramping through so many dead leaves.
Aphra Behn… and… er… a few others.
It’s incredibly difficult to find many women poets from before the 18th century. To write was unladylike.Then here comes a working-class girl with lovely, filthy poems, big-haired charisma and a penchant for getting herself into trouble.
A few before her had tried, but Aphra Behn was the first woman on record to earn her living by her pen. She was also a fricking spy. You couldn’t make her up if you tried.
There have been a few (male) critics who claim that she was only successful because she wrote like a bloke. This is rubbish: she wrote like a brilliant poet.
Besides, not many men write as scathingly about erectile disfunction as she does in The Disappointment, where she sneers, Beyonce-style, that essentially the guy loses it because she don’t think he can handle a shepherdess’s ‘soft, bewitching influence’.
She was embracing, pretty voraciously, female sexuality centuries before EL James holy-cowed her way into the fantasies of the way-too-easily-impressed bourgeoise: have a look at The Willing Mistress and The Dream.
The girls who hung out with the boys
As female education became more widespread, and novelists like Austen and the Bronte sisters showed that women were worth reading, female poets really began to blossom.
But the poetry we remember from these ages is still composed by groups of blokes: the first and second wave Romantics, the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood.
We’d be forgiven for thinking, after reading these poems, that women are simply ailing bathwater muses à la Elizabeth Siddal or just, y’know, sheaths (cheers Byron).
Nevertheless, there were some who were bright stars on their own terms. Elizabeth Barrett Browning eclipsed her husband as a poet, attracted widespread critical acclaim during her lifetime, and set a new standard for how to be a successful female artist.
She was a serious candidate for the first female Poet Laureate who inspired countless women and, get out the smelling salts, men too. All this while being damn hot: a pouting gentlewoman with masses of glossy curls.
Christina Rossetti, though meekly tied to Mama’s apron strings for most of her life, produced work just as great as that of her grave-robbing sibling Dante.
Although they came from a fairly traditional, Christian hand, there’s something a bit Tim Burton and goth-teen about her poems. Goblin Market, as well as being a wonderful tribute to sisterhood, is deliciously weird and deceptively simple, full of moon-arcs, cat-faced men and winking glow-worms.
Yes We Can
The first and second world wars marked a turning point in women’s rights. Although the most famously arresting stuff from either of conflict was written in the trenches, the grief and horror was also dealt with devastatingly by those left at home. (We’ll conveniently ignore the idiot jingoism of Jessie Pope).
Vera Brittain and Charlotte Mew are just two who articulate the bleakness with despairing eloquence. Brittain’s Perhaps is a heartbreaking account of the loss of her fiance to a sniper’s bullet, whilst Mew summons up one of the best evocations of a world damaged beyond repair: “What’s little June to a great broken world with eyes gone dim/ From too much looking on the face of grief, the face of dread”
In the decades following the wars, female poets forged ahead like the chains holding them back had never existed. It’s testament to how much changed that it’s difficult to pick just one or two to highlight.
We have, of course, to mention Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, Maya Angelou, Sylvia Plath, Janet Frame, Diane di Prima, Louise Gluck, Kathy Acker, Leonie Adams, Margaret Atwood, Patti Smith, U.A Fanthorpe, Joanne Kyger – well. Point made.
The twentieth century saw women be able to stop being female poets, and simply be poets, recognised in their own right. They permeated every literary movement going, and started a fair few on their own.
The only way is up
We’re now striding comfortably into the twenty-first century, and we have not one, not two, but three female national poets and a plethora of new talent poised to take the poetry world by storm. We’re now striding comfortably into the twenty-first century, and we have not one, not two, but three female national poets: Liz Lochead, Gillian Clarke, and wonderful Carol Ann Duffy.
Apart from the big-gun laureates, we have a plethora of new talent poised to take the poetry world by storm. Have a listen to performance poets Laura Dockrill and Kate Tempest: the latter seems to be Aphra Benn come full circle through a maelstrom of Wu-Tang Clan and Woolf. Check out Best Intentions and Renegade to see Tempest spit her way through some epic rhymes.
We’ve come a long way from having our books burned in the streets by arsehole vicars. The dead leaves have been kicked well and truly into the bright blue sky.