The HyperTexts

The Best Female Poets Ever: the Greatest Women Poets of All Time

Who were the greatest female poets? Picking the greatest women poets of all time should probably be a daunting task, but I decided to have fun with it. If you disagree with my choices, please feel free to compile your own.

compiled by Michael R. Burch

This is my personal (and therefore highly subjective) ranking of the top ten female poets of all time. It was neck-and-neck for number one between Marina Tsvetaeva, Louise Bogan and Sappho. If you read their poems on this page, you can see why.

(#10) Anne Reeve Aldrich
(#9) Sara Teasdale and Edna St. Vincent Millay (tie)
(#8) Elinor Wylie
(#7) Emily Dickinson
(#6) Christina Rossetti
(#5) Sylvia Plath
(#4) Elizabeth Bishop
(#3) Marina Tsvetaeva
(#2) Louise Bogan
(#1) Sappho

Honorable Mention: Adele, Anna Akhmatova, Nadia Anjuman, Maya Angelou, Anne Askew, Margaret Atwood, Aphra Behn, Anne Bradstreet, Anne Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, Gwendolyn Brooks, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Anne Carson, Margaret Cavendish, Amy Clampitt, Wendy Cope, H. D. (Hilda Dolittle), Rita Dove, Ann Drysdale, Queen Elizabeth I, Anne Finch, Nikki Giovanni, Julia Ward Howe, Carole King, Emma Lazarus, Denise Levertov, Amy Lowell, Joni Mitchell, Marianne Moore, Dorothy Parker, Katherine Philips, Adrienne Rich, Laura Riding, Anne Sexton, Mary Sidney, Edith Sitwell, A. E. Stallings, Charlotte Smith, Gertrude Stein, Alice Walker, Phillis Wheatley, Isabella Whitney, Mary Wroth

I will now present what I believe to be the best poems by women, in no particular order, giving preference in the early going to poems that may be unknown (or under-known) to many readers today ...



Sappho, fragment 42
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Eros harrows my heart:
wild winds whipping desolate mountains,
uprooting oaks.

Sappho is perhaps the first great female poet still known to us today, and remains one of the very best poets of all time, regardless of gender.



Sappho, fragment 155
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

A short transparent frock?
It's just my luck
your lips were made to mock!

I love the humor, irony and wit of this timeless epigram by a truly great poet. I have included a number of other poems by Sappho further down on this page. If you haven't read her, you haven't fully lived ...



I Know The Truth
by Marina Tsvetaeva
loose translation by  Michael R. Burch

I know the truth—abandon lesser truths!
There's no need for anyone living to struggle!
See? Evening falls, night quickly descends!
So why the useless disputes, generals, poets, lovers?

The wind is calming now; the earth is bathed in dew;
the stars' infernos will soon freeze in the heavens.
And soon we'll sleep together, under the earth,
we who never gave each other a moment's rest above it.

Marina Tsvetaeva is one of the greatest Russian poets of all time. I love this poem of hers so much that I chose to translate it myself.



Song For The Last Act
by Louise Bogan

Now that I have your face by heart, I look
Less at its features than its darkening frame
Where quince and melon, yellow as young flame,
Lie with quilled dahlias and the shepherd's crook.
Beyond, a garden. There, in insolent ease
The lead and marble figures watch the show
Of yet another summer loath to go
Although the scythes hang in the apple trees.

Now that I have your face by heart, I look.

Now that I have your voice by heart, I read
In the black chords upon a dulling page
Music that is not meant for music's cage,
Whose emblems mix with words that shake and bleed.
The staves are shuttled over with a stark
Unprinted silence. In a double dream
I must spell out the storm, the running stream.
The beat's too swift. The notes shift in the dark.

Now that I have your voice by heart, I read.

Now that I have your heart by heart, I see
The wharves with their great ships and architraves;
The rigging and the cargo and the slaves
On a strange beach under a broken sky.
O not departure, but a voyage done!
The bales stand on the stone; the anchor weeps
Its red rust downward, and the long vine creeps
Beside the salt herb, in the lengthening sun.

Now that I have your heart by heart, I see.

Louise Bogan is one of the best unknown or under-known poets of all time. Her best poems make her uncontestably a major poet, in my opinion. She's a poet who deserves to be read and studied. In particular, her "After the Persian," "Juan's Song" and "Song for the Last Act" are "must reads." All appear on this page.



Come slowly, Eden
by Emily Dickinson

Come slowly, Eden
Lips unused to thee.
Bashful, sip thy jasmines,
As the fainting bee,
Reaching late his flower,
Round her chamber hums,
Counts his nectars—alights,
And is lost in balms!

Emily Dickinson is the American Sappho, although entirely original in her own right. What a stunning metaphor, and the closing line is priceless.



Heart, we will forget him
by Emily Dickinson

Heart, we will forget him,
You and I, tonight!
You must forget the warmth he gave,
I will forget the light.

When you have done pray tell me,
Then I, my thoughts, will dim.
Haste! lest while you’re lagging
I may remember him!

This is another wonderful love poem by Emily Dickinson, who remained a romantic poet despite living most of her life in a sort of self-imposed seclusion. If she had actual love affairs, she kept them well hidden.



A charm invests a face
by Emily Dickinson

A charm invests a face
Imperfectly beheld.
The lady dare not lift her veil
For fear it be dispelled.

But peers beyond her mesh,
And wishes, and denies,
Lest interview annul a want
That image satisfies.

In this poem Emily Dickinson captures something of the ambivalence of human longing: ... will be more attractive if we remain mysterious, or if we expose ourselves?



I gave myself to him
by Emily Dickinson

I gave myself to him,
And took himself for pay.
The solemn contract of a life
Was ratified this way

The value might disappoint,
Myself a poorer prove
Than this my purchaser suspect,
The daily own of Love

Depreciates the sight;
But, 'til the merchant buy,
Still fabled, in the isles of spice
The subtle cargoes lie.

At least, 'tis mutual risk,
Some found it mutual gain;
Sweet debt of Life, each night to owe,
Insolvent, every noon.

Here again, Emily Dickinson writes wonderfully well about the ambivalence of human desire and love.



Wulf and Eadwacer (Anonymous Anglo-Saxon poem, circa 960-990 AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The outlanders pursue him as if he were game.
They will kill him if he comes in force.
It is otherwise with us.

Wulf is on one island; I, on another.
That island is fast, surrounded by fens.
There are fierce men on this island.
They will kill him if he comes in force.
It is otherwise with us.

My thoughts pursued Wulf like a panting hound.
Whenever it rained and I woke, disconsolate,
the bold warrior came: he took me in his arms.
For me, there was pleasure, but its end was loathsome.
Wulf, O, my Wulf, my ache for you
has made me sick; your infrequent visits
have left me famished, but why should I eat?
Do you hear, Eadwacer? A she-wolf has borne
our wretched whelp to the woods.
One can easily sunder what was never one:
our song together.

"Wulf and Eadwacer" has been one of my favorite poems since the first time I read it. In fact, I liked the poem so much that I ended up translating it myself! This is one of the oldest poems in the English language, and in all likelihood the first extant poem by a female poet. It is also one of the first English poems to employ a refrain, and the closing metaphor of a loveless relationship being like a song in which two voices never harmonized remains one of the strongest in English literature.



The Eagle and the Mole
by Elinor Wylie

Avoid the reeking herd,
Shun the polluted flock,
Live like that stoic bird,
The eagle of the rock.

The huddled warmth of crowds
Begets and fosters hate;
He keeps above the clouds
His cliff inviolate.

When flocks are folded warm,
And herds to shelter run,
He sails above the storm,
He stares into the sun.

If in the eagle's track
Your sinews cannot leap,
Avoid the lathered pack,
Turn from the steaming sheep.

If you would keep your soul
From spotted sight or sound,
Live like the velvet mole:
Go burrow underground.

And there hold intercourse
With roots of trees and stones,
With rivers at their source,
And disembodied bones.



Cold-Blooded Creatures
by Elinor Wylie

Man, the egregious egoist
(In mystery the twig is bent)
Imagines, by some mental twist,
That he alone is sentient

Of the intolerable load
That on all living creatures lies,
Nor stoops to pity in the toad
The speechless sorrow of his eyes.

He asks no questions of the snake,
Nor plumbs the phosphorescent gloom
Where lidless fishes, broad awake,
Swim staring at a nightmare doom.

Elinor Wylie's poems above remind me of John Clare's badger, of D. H. Lawrence's snake, and of Richard Wilbur's tour-de-force poem "The Death of a Toad." And yet her poetry is wholly (and perhaps even holy) unique and original.



Wild Asters
by Sara Teasdale

In the spring I asked the daisies
    If his words were true,
And the clever, clear-eyed daisies
    Always knew.

Now the fields are brown and barren,
    Bitter autumn blows,
And of all the stupid asters
    Not one knows.



I Shall Not Care
by Sara Teasdale

When I am dead and over me bright April
    Shakes out her rain-drenched hair,
Though you shall lean above me broken-hearted,
    I shall not care.

I shall have peace, as leafy trees are peaceful
    When rain bends down the bough;
And I shall be more silent and cold-hearted
    Than you are now.



Advice to a Girl
by Sara Teasdale

No one worth possessing
Can be quite possessed;
Lay that on your heart,
My young angry dear;
This truth, this hard and precious stone,
Lay it on your hot cheek,
Let it hide your tear.
Hold it like a crystal
When you are alone
And gaze in the depths of the icy stone.
Long, look long and you will be blessed:
No one worth possessing
Can be quite possessed.



The Solitary
by Sara Teasdale

My heart has grown rich with the passing of years,
   I have less need now than when I was young
To share myself with every comer
   Or shape my thoughts into words with my tongue.
It is one to me that they come or go
   If I have myself and the drive of my will,
And strength to climb on a summer night
   And watch the stars swarm over the hill.
Let them think I love them more than I do,
   Let them think I care, though I go alone;
If it lifts their pride, what is it to me
   Who am self-complete as a flower or a stone.

Sara Teasdale rivals A. E. Housman and Shakespeare as masters of direct statement, proving that "no ideas but in things" is yet another irrational literary dictate, along with "fear abstractions" and "the perfect poem is silence."



Juan's Song
by Louise Bogan

When beauty breaks and falls asunder
I feel no grief for it, but wonder.
When love, like a frail shell, lies broken,
I keep no chip of it for token.
I never had a man for friend
Who did not know that love must end.
I never had a girl for lover
Who could discern when love was over.
What the wise doubt, the fool believes
Who is it, then, that love deceives?



After the Persian
by Louise Bogan

I

I do not wish to know
The depths of your terrible jungle:
From what nest your leopard leaps
Or what sterile lianas are at once your serpents' disguise
      and home.

I am the dweller on the temperate threshold,
The strip of corn and vine,
Where all is translucence (the light!)
Liquidity, and the sound of water.
Here the days pass under shade
And the nights have the waxing and the waning moon.
Here the moths take flight at evening;
Here at morning the dove whistles and the pigeons coo.
Here, as night comes on, the fireflies wink and snap
Close to the cool ground,
Shining in a profusion
Celestial or marine.

Here it is never wholly dark but always wholly green,
And the day stains with what seems to be more than the
      sun
What may be more than my flesh.

II

I have wept with the spring storm;
Burned with the brutal summer.
Now, hearing the wind and the twanging bow-strings,
I know what winter brings.

The hunt sweeps out upon the plain
And the garden darkens.
They will bring the trophies home
To bleed and perish
Beside the trellis and the lattices,
Beside the fountain, still flinging diamond water,
Beside the pool
(Which is eight-sided, like my heart).

III

All has been translated into treasure:
Weightless as amber,
Translucent as the currant on the branch,
Dark as the rose's thorn.

Where is the shimmer of evil?
This is the shell's iridescence
And the wild bird's wing.

IV

Ignorant, I took up my burden in the wilderness.
Wise with great wisdom, I shall lay it down upon flowers.

V

Goodbye, goodbye!
There was so much to love, I could not love it all;
I could not love it enough.

Some things I overlooked, and some I could not find.
Let the crystal clasp them
When you drink your wine, in autumn.



Roman Fountain

by Louise Bogan

Up from the bronze, I saw
Water without a flaw
Rush to its rest in air,
Reach to its rest, and fall.

Bronze of the blackest shade,
An element man-made,
Shaping upright the bare
Clear gouts of water in air.

O, as with arm and hammer,
Still it is good to strive
To beat out the image whole,
To echo the shout and stammer
When full-gushed waters, alive,
Strike on the fountain's bowl
After the air of summer.

Louise Bogan is one of the best unknown or under-known poets of all time. Her best poems make her uncontestably a major poet, in my opinion. She's a poet who deserves to be read and studied. In particular, her "After the Persian," "Juan's Song" and "Song for the Last Act" are "must reads."



How Do I Love Thee?
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints,—I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning may have been the only two major poets who were married to each other.



Friday
by Ann Drysdale

The print of a bare foot, the second toe
A little longer than the one which is
Traditionally designated "great".
Praxiteles would have admired it.

You must have left in haste; your last wet step
Before boarding your suit and setting sail,
Outlined in talcum on the bathroom floor
Mocks your habitual fastidiousness.

There is no tide here to obliterate
Your oversight. Unless I wipe or sweep
Or suck it up, it will not go away.
The thought delights me. I will keep the footprint.

Too slight, too simply human to be called
Token or promise; I am keeping it
Because it is a precious evidence
That on this island I am not alone.

Ann Drysdale is one of our better contemporary poets of either gender, in my opinion.



Song
by Christina Rossetti

When I am dead, my dearest,
   Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
   Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
   With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
   And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
   I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
   Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
   That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
   And haply may forget.



Uphill
by Christina Rossetti

Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
    Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
    From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?
    A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
    You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
    Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
    They will not keep you standing at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
    Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
    Yea, beds for all who come.

Christina Rossetti wrote a handful of immortal poems, and that makes her a poet for the ages.



First Fig
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!



Love Is Not All
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Love is not all: It is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain,
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
and rise and sink and rise and sink again.
Love cannot fill the thickened lung with breath
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
pinned down by need and moaning for release
or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It may well be. I do not think I would.



I, Being Born a Woman, and Distressed
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I, being born a woman, and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body's weight upon my breast:
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.
Think not for this, however, this poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity — let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.



What Lips My Lips Have Kissed
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

Millay is not just another doctrinaire penner of sonnets. Her sonnets sparkle with life and lust amid the foreshadowing of death. She also has an interesting quality of resolve: she seems willing to give herself to men, but not to give herself away. If she is playing games, she is playing them knowingly, and probably understands the rules better than her partners.



One Art

by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.




The Fish

by Elizabeth Bishop

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn't fight.
He hadn't fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
—the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly—
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
—It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
—if you could call it a lip
grim, wet, and weaponlike,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels—until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.



The Armadillo

by Elizabeth Bishop

for Robert Lowell


This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,

rising toward a saint
still honored in these parts,
the paper chambers flush and fill with light
that comes and goes, like hearts.

Once up against the sky it's hard
to tell them from the stars —
planets, that is — the tinted ones:
Venus going down, or Mars,

or the pale green one. With a wind,
they flare and falter, wobble and toss;
but if it's still they steer between
the kite sticks of the Southern Cross,

receding, dwindling, solemnly
and steadily forsaking us,
or, in the downdraft from a peak,
suddenly turning dangerous.

Last night another big one fell.
It splattered like an egg of fire
against the cliff behind the house.
The flame ran down. We saw the pair

of owls who nest there flying up
and up, their whirling black-and-white
stained bright pink underneath, until
they shrieked up out of sight.

The ancient owls' nest must have burned.
Hastily, all alone,
a glistening armadillo left the scene,
rose-flecked, head down, tail down,

and then a baby rabbit jumped out,
short-eared, to our surprise.
So soft! — a handful of intangible ash
with fixed, ignited eyes.

Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!
O falling fire and piercing cry
and panic, and a weak mailed fist
clenched ignorant against the sky!



Cirque d'Hiver
by Elizabeth Bishop

Across the floor flits the mechanical toy,
fit for a king of several centuries back.
A little circus horse with real white hair.
His eyes are glossy black.
He bears a little dancer on his back.

She stands upon her toes and turns and turns.
A slanting spray of artificial roses
is stitched across her skirt and tinsel bodice.
Above her head she poses
another spray of artificial roses.

His mane and tail are straight from Chirico.
He has a formal, melancholy soul.
He feels her pink toes dangle toward his back
along the little pole
that pierces both her body and her soul

and goes through his, and reappears below,
under his belly, as a big tin key.
He canters three steps, then he makes a bow,
canters again, bows on one knee,
canters, then clicks and stops, and looks at me.

The dancer, by this time, has turned her back.
He is the more intelligent by far.
Facing each other rather desperately—
his eye is like a star—
we stare and say, "Well, we have come this far."

Elizabeth Bishop wrote a handful of truly great poems such as "One Art," "The Fish" and "The Armadillo," and can probably be considered a major poet as a result.



The Bustle In A House
by Emily Dickinson

The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth.

The sweeping up the heart
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
Until eternity.



Hope Is A Thing With Feathers
by Emily Dickinson

Hope is a thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings a tune without words
And never stops at all.

And sweetest, in the gale, is heard
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That keeps so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chilliest land
And on the strangest sea
Yet, never, in extremity
It ask a crumb of me.



A light exists in spring

by Emily Dickinson

A light exists in Spring
Not present on the year
At any other period—
When March is scarcely here

A color stands abroad
On solitary fields
That science cannot overtake
But human nature feels.

It waits upon the lawn,
It shows the furthest tree
Upon the furthest slope we know;
It almost speaks to me.

Then, as horizons step,
Or noons report away,
Without the formula of sound,
It passes, and we stay:

A quality of loss
Affecting our content,
As trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a sacrament.

Emily Dickinson is undoubtedly a major poet, and she remains a major influence on American poetry, English poetry, and world poetry.



The Ghost Ship
by A. E. Stallings

She plies an inland sea. Dull
With rust, scarred by a jagged reef.
In Cyrillic, on her hull
Is lettered, Grief.

The dim stars do not signify;
No sonar with its eerie ping
Sounds the depths—she travels by
Dead reckoning.

At her heart is a stopped clock.
In her wake, the hours drag.
There is no port where she can dock,
She flies no flag,

Has no allegiance to a state,
No registry, no harbor berth,
Nowhere to discharge her freight
Upon the earth.

A. E. Stallings is a contemporary poet who's making a name for herself, and leaving her mark on the world in the form of memorable poems.



Winter landscape, with rocks

by Sylvia Plath

Water in the millrace, through a sluice of stone,
plunges headlong into that black pond
where, absurd and out-of-season, a single swan
floats chaste as snow, taunting the clouded mind
which hungers to haul the white reflection down.

The austere sun descends above the fen,
an orange cyclops-eye, scorning to look
longer on this landscape of chagrin;
feathered dark in thought, I stalk like a rook,
brooding as the winter night comes on.

Last summer's reeds are all engraved in ice
as is your image in my eye; dry frost
glazes the window of my hurt; what solace
can be struck from rock to make heart's waste
grow green again? Who'd walk in this bleak place?

Sylvia Plath has been criticized for being a confessional poet, as if that is a bad thing. But she was a talented, accomplished poet who wrote well whether her subject was herself or a bleak winter landscape.



Sea Fevers
by Agnes Wathall

No ancient mariner I,
   Hawker of public crosses,
Snaring the passersby
   With my necklace of albatrosses.

I blink no glittering eye
   Between tufts of gray sea mosses
Nor in the high road ply
   My trade of guilts and glosses.

But a dark and inward sky
   Tracks the flotsam of my losses.
No more becalmed to lie,
   The skeleton ship tosses.

Agnes Wathall is an unknown poet today, but this poem deserves to be read, and remembered.



Let Us Be Midwives!
by Kurihara Sadako
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Midnight . . .
the basement of a shattered building . . .
atomic bomb survivors sniveling in the darkness . . .
not a single candle between them . . .
the odor of blood . . .
the stench of death . . .
the sickly-sweet smell of decaying humanity . . .
the groans . . .
the moans . . .
Out of all that, suddenly, miraculously, a voice:
"The baby's coming!"
In the hellish basement, unexpectedly,
a young mother had gone into labor.
In the dark, lacking a single match, what to do?
Scrambling to her side,
forgetting their own . . .

This is a heart-catching poem by a Hiroshima survivor. I only hope my translation does the original poem justice.



Du
by Janet Kenny

A wisp of old woman,
curved like a scythe,
tottered to me as she
fussed her shopping,
her walking stick hooked
on her chopstick wrist.

She spoke to me then
in a dried leaf voice.
Inaudible there
in that busy street,
swept by rude gales
from passing trucks.

I leaned closer to hear:
Mein eyes not gut.
time for bus, ven comes it?
“Which bus do you want?”

She smiled, shook her head
then sang to herself
—and somebody else,
in—not German. Yiddish?
“Which bus?”
She leaned towards me,
her tiny claw reached
to stroke my face.
Du she said.

Du

This is a wonderfully haunting poem by a contemporary poet.



Helen
by H. D.

All Greece hates
the still eyes in the white face,
the lustre as of olives
where she stands,
and the white hands.

All Greece reviles
the wan face when she smiles,
hating it deeper still
when it grows wan and white,
remembering past enchantments
and past ills.

Greece sees unmoved,
God's daughter, born of love,
the beauty of cool feet
and slenderest knees,
could love indeed the maid,
only if she were laid,
white ash amid funereal cypresses.



Resume
by Dorothy Parker

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

Dorothy Parker reminds us humorously, wittily and ironically that suicide is a difficult, messy, ungainly business.



This day of chrysanthemums
I shake and comb my wet hair,
as their petals shed rain
― Hisajo Sugita, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I love the metaphor of a woman on "the day of chrysanthemums" looking in the mirror and comparing her wet hair to flowers shedding rain.



I remove my beautiful kimono:
its varied braids
surround and entwine my body
― Hisajo Sugita, loose translation by Michael R. Burch

This is another wonderful haiku by a talented and accomplished female poet.



The Wife's Lament
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I draw these words from deep wells of my grief,
care-worn, unutterably sad.
I can recount woes I've borne since birth,
present and past, never more than now.
I have won, from my exile-paths, only pain.

First, my lord forsook his folk, left,
crossed the seas' tumult, far from our people.
Since then, I've known
wrenching dawn-griefs, disconsolate mournings;
where, oh where can he be?

Then I, too, left—a lonely, lordless refugee,
full of unaccountable desires!
But the man's kinsmen schemed secretly
to estrange us, divide us, keep us apart,
across earth's wide kingdom, and my heart broke.

Then my lord spoke:
"Take up residence here."
I had few acquaintances in this unknown,
friendless region, none close.
Christ, I felt lost!

Then I thought I had found a well-matched man—
one meant for me,
but unfortunately he
was ill-starred and blind, with a devious mind,
full of murderous intentions, plotting some crime!

Before God we
vowed never to part, not till kingdom come, never!
But now that's all changed, forever—
our friendship done, severed.
I must hear, far and near, contempt for my husband.

So other men bade me, "Go, live in the grove,
beneath the great oaks, in an earth-cave, alone."
In this ancient cave-dwelling I am lost and oppressed—
the valleys are dark, the hills immense,
and this cruel-briared enclosure—an arid abode!

The injustice assails me—my lord's absence!
On earth there are lovers who share the same bed
while I pass through life dead, in this dark abscess
where I wilt, summer days unable to rest
or forget the sorrows of my life's hard lot.

A young woman must always be
stern, hard-of-heart, unmoved,
opposing breast-cares and her heartaches' legions.
She must appear cheerful
even in a tumult of grief.

Like a criminal exiled to a far-off land,
moaning beneath insurmountable cliffs,
my weary-minded love, drenched by wild storms
and caught in the clutches of anguish,
is reminded constantly of our former happiness.

Woe be it to them who abide in longing.

"The Wife's Lament" or "The Wife's Complaint" is an Old English (Anglo Saxon) poem found in the Exeter Book. It is an elegy in the manner of the German frauenlied, or "woman's song." The Exeter Book has been dated to 960-990 AD, so the poem was probably written no later than 990 AD, but may have been written earlier.



The Health-Food Diner
by Maya Angelou

No sprouted wheat and soya shoots
And Brussels in a cake,
Carrot straw and spinach raw,
(Today, I need a steak).

Not thick brown rice and rice pilaw
Or mushrooms creamed on toast,
Turnips mashed and parsnips hashed,
(I'm dreaming of a roast).

Health-food folks around the world
Are thinned by anxious zeal,
They look for help in seafood kelp
(I count on breaded veal).

No smoking signs, raw mustard greens,
Zucchini by the ton,
Uncooked kale and bodies frail
Are sure to make me run

to

Loins of pork and chicken thighs
And standing rib, so prime,
Pork chops brown and fresh ground round
(I crave them all the time).

Irish stews and boiled corned beef
and hot dogs by the scores,
or any place that saves a space
For smoking carnivores.

It's fashionable for poets and critics to frown down on Maya Angelou, perhaps because she's popular and accessible, but this is a fine poem with a killer ending.



Poems about Moscow
by Marina Tsvetaeva
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

5
Above the city Saint Peter once remanded to hell
now rolls the delirious thunder of the bells.

As the thundering high tide eventually reverses,
so, too, the woman who once bore your curses.

To you, O Great Peter, and you, O Great Tsar, I kneel!
And yet the bells above me continually peal.

And while they keep ringing out of the pure blue sky,
Moscow's eminence is something I can't deny ...

though sixteen hundred churches, nearby and afar,
all gaily laugh at the hubris of the Tsars.

8
Moscow, what a vast
uncouth hostel of a home!
In Russia all are homeless
so all to you must come.

A knife stuck in each boot-top,
each back with its shameful brand,
we heard you from far away.
You called us: here we stand.

Because you branded us criminals
for every known kind of ill,
we seek the all-compassionate Saint,
the haloed one who heals.

And there behind that narrow door
where all the uncouth people pour,
we seek the red-gold radiant heart
of Iver, who loved the poor.

Now, as "Halleluiah" floods
bright fields that blaze to the west,
O sacred Russian soil,
I kneel here to kiss your breast!



Insomnia
by Marina Tsvetaeva
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

2
In my enormous city it is night
as from my house I step beyond the light;
some people think I'm daughter, mistress, wife ...
but I am like the blackest thought of night.

July's wind sweeps a way for me to stray
toward soft music faintly blowing, somewhere.
The wind may blow until bright dawn, new day,
but will my heart in its rib-cage really care?

Black poplars brushing windows filled with light ...
strange leaves in hand ... faint music from distant towers ...
retracing my steps, there's nobody lagging behind ...
This shadow called me? There's nobody here to find.

The lights are like golden beads on invisible threads ...
the taste of dark night in my mouth is a bitter leaf ...
O, free me from shackles of being myself by day!
Friends, please understand: I'm only a dreamlike belief.



Poems for Akhmatova
by Marina Tsvetaeva
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

4
You outshine everything, even the sun
   at its zenith. The stars are yours!
If only I could sweep like the wind
   through some unbarred door,
gratefully, to where you are ...
  
to hesitantly stammer, suddenly shy,
   lowering my eyes before you, my lovely mistress,
petulant, chastened, overcome by tears,
   as a child sobs to receive forgiveness ...



This gypsy passion of parting!
by Marina Tsvetaeva
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

This gypsy passion of parting!
We meet, and are ready for flight!
I rest my dazed head in my hands,
and think, staring into the night ...

that no one, perusing our letters,
will ever understand the real depth
of just how sacrilegious we were,
which is to say we had faith,

in ourselves.



The Appointment
by Marina Tsvetaeva
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I will be late for the appointed meeting.
When I arrive, my hair will be gray,
because I abused spring.
And your expectations were much too high!

I shall feel the effects of the bitter mercury for years.
(Ophelia tasted, but didn't spit out, the rue.)
I will trudge across mountains and deserts,
trampling souls and hands without flinching,

living on, as the earth continues
with blood in every thicket and creek.
But always Ophelia's pallid face will peer out
from between the grasses bordering each stream.

She took a swig of passion, only to fill her mouth
with silt. Like a shaft of light on metal,
I set my sights on you, highly. Much too high
in the sky, where I have appointed my dust its burial.

 

Rails
by Marina Tsvetaeva
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The railway bed's steel-blue parallel tracks
are ruled out, neatly as musical staves.

Over them, people are transported
like possessed Pushkin creatures
whose song has been silenced.
See them: arriving, departing?

And yet they still linger,
the note of their pain remaining ...
always rising higher than love, as the poles freeze
to the embankment, like Lot's wife transformed to salt, forever.

Despair has arranged my fate
as someone arranges a wedding;
then, like a voiceless Sappho
I must weep like a pain-wracked seamstress

with the mute lament of a marsh heron!
Then the departing train
will hoot above the sleepers
as its wheels slice them to ribbons.

In my eye the colors blur
to a glowing but meaningless red.
All young women, at times,
are tempted by such a bed!



Every Poem is a Child of Love
by Marina Tsvetaeva
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Every poem is a child of love,
A destitute bastard chick
A fledgling blown down from the heights above—
Left of its nest? Not a stick.
Each heart has its gulf and its bridge.
Each heart has its blessings and griefs.
Who is the father? A liege?
Maybe a liege, or a thief.



Sappho, fragment 130
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

May the gods prolong the night
  —yes, let it last forever!—
as long as you sleep in my sight.

Sappho, fragment 137
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Gold does not rust,
yet my son becomes dust?

Sappho, fragment 52
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The moon has long since set;
the Pleiades are gone;
now half the night is spent
and yet I sleep alone.

Sappho, fragment 156
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

She keeps her scents in a dressing-case
and her sense? In some undiscoverable place.

Sappho, fragments 122 & 123
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Your voice—a sweeter liar
than the lyre,
more dearly sold
and bought, than gold.

Sappho, fragment 100
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The softest pallors grace
her lovely face.

So there you have them: the best poems by female poets, according to me. I'm sure every reader's choices will be different, but if you added a poem or three to yours, having read mine, hopefully you will consider your time here well spent.

Related pages: Best Sappho Translations, Best Female Singer-Songwriters, Best Female Writers, Best Poets, Best of the Masters

The HyperTexts