How many female poets can you name? Would you recognize their work if you saw it? It’s an unfortunate truth that many women have gone unrecognized for both the beauty and sensibility of their poems. So, let’s put your knowledge to the test by highlighting a collection of famous female poets and seeing how many are familiar to you.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” It’s one of the most popular sonnets of all time, but its author, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, is lesser-known, at least to modern audiences. She was quite influential back in the Victorian era. As a matter of fact, Edgar Allan Poe even dedicated a poetry collection to her while calling her “the noblest of her sex.”
Today, however, Browning is somewhat obscure. She is known for the “How Do I Love Thee?” sonnet and “Aurora Leigh,” an epic, nine-book poem centered around a strong and independent heroine. This reflected Browning’s feminist leanings and her political expressions throughout her works.
Emily Dickinson is one of the most famous female poets of all time, and her collection spans more than 1,800 works, including classics such as “Hope is the thing with feathers” and “Because I could not stop for death.”
Funnily enough, Dickinson’s career was the opposite of her idol Browning’s: She was little known during her life but became immensely popular after her death. Her legacy extends beyond her poetry, including her secluded lifestyle, eccentric reputation, and decades-long correspondence with fellow writers and friends. She’s even been the subject of an Apple TV+ series!
Gwendolyn Brooks spoke for more than just herself. As one of the most famous black female poets of the 20th century, her works explored identity, poverty, racism, humanism, and civil rights themes. Her style was wide-ranging, and she often did clever and creative things, such as using blues rhythms in free verse poems. She called her style “folksy narrative.”
Throughout her poetry and literary career, Brooks won several accolades. She was the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize and the first to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She is also the first to work as the poetry consultant for the Library of Congress.
Sappho hails from the Greek island of Lesbos. She is a legendary figure that lived sometime around 630 BC. She was known for her lyrical poetry meant to be accompanied by live music.
Sappho garnered so much fame and attention that she was often given glowing nicknames such as “The Tenth Muse” and “The Poetess.” Sadly, much of Sappho’s poetry has been lost to time. We only have a few partially completed works like the “Ode to Aphrodite.”
Though best known for her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou was also a prominent poet, playwright, essayist, and screenwriter. She even wrote cookbooks! You’d never guess that she came from a dark and challenging background that she channeled into her work.
By the time of her death, Mrs. Angelou had hundreds of works to her name, including ones nominated for Pulitzer Prizes. She also raked in awards for non-authorial work in music, television, film, and theater, including several Grammys and Tonys.
Many consider Sylvia Path a rebellious figure, a troubled soul who committed suicide at age 30. Nonetheless, girls and women who struggle with depression, isolation, and loneliness consider her an icon.
Plath’s first poetry collection, The Colossus and Other Poems, tackled heavy subjects ranging from death and duty to the suffering of women who don’t prescribe to traditional ideas of femininity. Another famous work is the semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, which follows a mentally ill young woman as she spirals further and further into depression.
Despite being one of the younger names on this list, Rupi Kaur is already one of her generation’s most famous female poets. Her debut poetry collection, Milk and Honey, was a New York Times bestseller, and her follow-up, The Sun and Her Flowers, repeated that success.
Born in India and raised in Canada, Kaur’s poems explore topics related to South Asian immigration, youth, gender, hope, and happiness. Critics call her work “Instapoetry” since it was created and styled for the social media network Instagram. First hailed as an “Instapoet,” she was able to cross the line into a published poet successfully. However, she hasn’t forgotten her humble beginnings and still uses them to fuel her work.
With a remarkable life story, Phillis Wheatley is known for her personal history and poetry. She was born in Africa, sold as a slave at age seven or eight, and taken to Boston, Massachusetts to serve a wealthy family.
They educated her, and by age 12, she was plowing through Greek and Latin texts while composing her works. By age 20, she had published a collection of poetry, the first African-African person to ever do so in America.
Sadly, Wheatley died at age 31, so she never reached the acclaim of some of the other poets on this list. However, she made critical strides for her time. She’s still remembered today for the beauty of her words and the tenacity of her spirit.
The recipient of everything from the National Book Award to a Pulitzer Prize, Mary Oliver was one of the most prolific poets of the 20th century, earning a reputation as “indefatigable” as she published new poetry collections every few years. Her works centered around nature, especially the beauty found in simple, everyday settings. She also explored themes of womanhood and the parallels that can be drawn between women and wilderness. She had a long-term female partner of more than 40 years and died peacefully at age 83.
Love came down at Christmas / Love all lovely, love divine…
You might be familiar with this carol, which is ubiquitous in Britain at Christmastime, but you might not know it came from Christina Rossetti.
She’s one of the most famous female poets from Victorian England. Her carols are just one of the ways that her legacy has been preserved through the ages. She was also the subject of several paintings by her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and her poetry collections gained immense posthumous popularity.
Fun fact: Another British carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” is also attributed to Rossetti.
Adrienne Rich can be considered one of the most prominent voices in famous feminist poems. She was widely decorated in her time, winning the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award to the Academy of American Poets Fellowship; she also famously declined the National Medal of Arts as a protest against social inequality.
Her works explored topics of feminism and racism in addition to LGBT inclusion. In addition to poems, she also wrote essays, nonfiction books, and published critiques.
A political activist from India, Sarojini Naidu was one of the most famous female poets in the 21st century. Her works often centered around socially conscious issues such as anti-imperialism and women’s emancipation, which were particularly relevant during India’s independence movement. She was nicknamed “the nightingale of India.”
Famous Naidu works include her first poetry collection, The Golden Threshold, and individual poems such as “In the Bazaars of Hyderabad.”
The Legacy of Female Poets
In the world of female poets, some names are more enduring than others. History has shown us, however, that we don’t always know which voices will persist while others fade away. This is why it’s important to take stock of famous female poets while we can. We should celebrate them and elevate their poetries. Above all, remember them and what they contribute to the world.