This week, in honor of Women’s History Month, we are continuing our look at American history’s treasure-chest of women poets. Here’s the second part of a two-part musing on the poets—in no particular order—who have made their mark on women’s history in our nation.

 

Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980)

Not one of the first names you’ll hear in a discussion about great women poets in America, but a name you’re certain to hear when the topic is activist poets.  Muriel Rukeyser had enormous gifts for writing and teaching poetry, and she used them to reflect on the gift of living in a land where one is allowed to question the status quo.  From her arrest as an 18-year old reporter at the Scottsboro trials on, she championed those without advocates and gave voice to those who were not heard.

 

Rukeyser wrote:

 

Great living animals grow on the stone walls,

their pelts, their eyes, their sex, their hearts,

and the cave-painters touch them with life, red, brown, black,

a woman among them, painting.

 

From “Painters”

Muriel Rukeyser

 

 

Lucille Clifton (1936-2010)

Three times nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, Lucille Clifton was recognized by the great Robert Hayden as a promising poet when she was awarded the YW-YMCA Discovery Award while still in college.  In 2000, at age 64, she won the National Book Award for “Blessing the Boats,” having won a trove of other honors in between.  Lucille Clifton was best known for turning her keen intelligence to the examination of the everyday and always emerging with riches.

 

may you

open your eyes to water

water waving forever

and may you in your innocence

sail through this to that

 

From “Blessing the Boats”

Lucille Clifton

 

 

 

 

 

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

 

In 2001, Nancy Milford wrote Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, perhaps one of the most complete and compelling biographies to be published in this century.  Of it, this was said:  “Savage Beauty is the portrait of a passionate, fearless woman who obsessed America even as she tormented herself.” Millay was the first woman ever to win the Pulitzer Prize.  She was a riveting stage presence, a legendary lover, and a self-immolating moment in American literary history.  Her work endures for its relentless relationship to reality.

Typically brilliant Millay:

 

To what purpose, April, do you return again?

Beauty is not enough.

You can no longer quiet me with the redness

Of little leaves opening stickily.

I know what I know.

 

 

From “Spring”

Edna St. Vincent Millay

 

 

 

Anne Bradstreet  (1612-1672)

 

Anne Bradstreet was New England’s first published poet— regardless of gender. She was plagued by numerous illnesses and maladies, had eight children and moved her household six times before her beloved North Andover home burned with all of her 800 books and family possessions.  Despite those challenges, she lived with grace within the strictures of the life of a colonial woman, and she endures as a cornerstone of American literature.  “The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America,” by a “Gentlewoman from Those Parts,” was published in 1650. It was an enormous accomplishment that could be only partially enjoyed, since Bradstreet was careful not to color outside  the lines of seemliness for a woman of her time and place.

 

Some Bradstreet:

 

There’s wealth enough; I need no more.

Farewell, my pelf; farewell, my store.

The world no longer let me love;

My hope and Treasure lies above.

 

From “Verses Upon the Burning of Our House”

Anne Bradstreet

 

 

 

 

Ai  (1947-2010)

 

 

Known to have described herself as one-half Japanese, Choctaw-Chickasaw, Black, Irish, Southern Cheyenne, and Comanche, Ai was as American as a poet can get. Born Florence Anthony in the melting pot of Texas in 1947, she eventually changed her name to Ai, which means “love” in Japanese.  Ai served as a voice for those who are most often barely heard as whispers.  No one was marginalized in Ai’s world.

 

Some of what Ai said:

 

I know the difference between
what it is and what it isn’t.
Just because I can’t touch it
doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

 

From “Riot Act, April 29, 1992”

Ai


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