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From people like Sylvia Plath to Maya Angelou, and many more who have traversed generations, geography, and ideologies, America has been blessed with so many famous female poets in its history. Most of these women are more than just great female poets as they are even some of the greatest poets that humanity has got to meet and read about.
Although many of them have not lived long or won many awards, their works have stood the test of time and are sure to live to a time when there are no humans to read them.
Famous Female Poets In American History
1. Sylvia Plath
(October 27, 1932 – February 11, 1963)
For poets and poetry lovers, Sylvia Plath represents something entirely different in poetry. Although she died at the age of 30, she would go on to become not just one of the most famous female poets in American history, but also one of the greatest poets to ever walk the earth.
As is typical with many poets, her life story may as well be a sad poetry, losing her father at a very young age and then suffering a depression that would go on to claim her life. Plath began writing when she was just 8.
Before she committed suicide, Plath had only published a single poetry collection, The Colossus and Other Poems in 1960. However, it was a body of her last writings in 1962 that would make her the poet she has become.
2. Emily Dickinson
(December 10, 1830 – May 15, 1886)
Among the major poets in America, you will find Emily Elizabeth Dickinson who is referred to as one of the foundations behind a uniquely American poetic style. Dickinson lived most of her life in isolation only keeping in contact through correspondences.
Inasmuch as she had always been a very powerful poet whose themes include morbidity and religion, she did not become very popular until after her death. She left many works which have been published after her death. The most famous poems of Emily Dickinson include Hope Is The Thing With Feathers and Because I Could Not Stop For Death.
3. Maya Angelou
(April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014)
Born Marguerite Annie Johnson, Maya Angelo was also a civil rights activist. If she had decided to turn her life story into fiction, she would have sold into the millions. She was sexually abused as a child and then grew up to work as a sex worker, performer, cook, and nightclub dancer.
At around the age of 8, Maya’s world was turned upside down when she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. He was tried and sentenced to only one day in prison. But when he got out, he was murdered and even though the culprit was not found, it was assumed that Maya’s uncles were responsible since they were very upset when she had told them of the incidence initially. This made her go mute for years thinking her voice could kill. Years after she found her voice back, it echoed in poetry to the ends of the world.
The general themes of her poetry are mostly pain, loss, hope, love, racism, and struggles. With 10 collections, one of her most recognized work is And Still I Rise (1978). For her spoken word albums, Maya has three Grammys to her name and in 2011, she was also a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
With 7 collections to her name, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, making her the first poet to get it posthumously.
4. Elizabeth Bishop
(February 9, 1911 – October 6, 1979)
The 20th century has seen many poets, but Elizabeth Bishop is considered to be one of the finest. There are many who believe the greatest poets most times have had a bitter past. Bishop fits this class after losing her father when she was only 8 months while her mother suffered mental illness. Orphaned when she was a little girl she had her many days of unhappiness and loneliness, her poems reflect loss, sadness, childhood, and much more.
She has many awards to her name including the Houghton Mifflin Poetry Prize Fellowship, Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, National Book Award for Poetry, and in 2010, she made it into the inaugural class of the New York Writers Hall of Fame.
5. Mary Oliver
(September 10, 1935 – )
Oliver is described by the New York Times as America’s best-selling poet, but the poetry world sees her as something that is much more than just the copies sold. Although she has her own voice, she is a distant reincarnation of Emily Dickinson in a style that is very close to solitude.
With over 30 collections to her name and four works of nonfiction, she has been associated with poems that link to nature and those that are very simple and still deep. She may not necessarily be the favorite with critics, but she is still one of the most famous female poets in American history. Some of her best poems are A Dream of Trees, A Visitor My father, and Wild Geese.
6. Audre Lorde
(February 18, 1934 – November 17, 1992)
As a black woman born in the America of the 1930s, Audre Lorde’s poems center on things like social justice, feminism, race, and much more. Since the age of 4, Audre Lorde began learning to write thanks to the help of her mother and by the time she was in eighth grade, she had already written her first poem.
As she grew, she would come to have a very difficult relationship with her parents, something that reflected in her works. She began publishing in the 1960s, becoming famous for the genuine anger in her work as well as the hope that she gives.
Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, and poet is how she described herself, her works revolve around those things. Some of her best poems are For Each Of You, Never To Dream Of Spiders, and Hanging Fire.
7. Adrienne Rich
(May 16, 1929 – March 27, 2012)
A litany of the most famous female poets in American history will not be complete without one of the most confident poetic voices, Adrienne Rich. She is a feminist, an essayist, and a poet who is one of the most read and influential in the 20th century.
She was encouraged into reading and writing by her father when she was little. Since then, she has not stopped writing until her death in 2012, leaving behind over 25 collections that include Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems (2010) which is considered her final and most powerful works.
The themes of Adrienne Rich’s works are broad and they include things like lesbian existence, feminism, love, and even a good sense of anger. Some of her best poems are Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers, Living In Sin, and A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.
8. Edna St. Vincent Millay
(February 22, 1892 – October 19, 1950)
Also a playwright, Edna St. Vincent Millay was a poet who is one of the most famous female poets that America has seen, with some of the best sonnets. She was mostly raised alongside two sisters by their mother who had divorced their father. While growing up, she was never afraid to speak up and that was something that became important for her as a poet associated with feminist activism.
Although she died at 58, she achieved a lot having started writing in her early teens. She got her poetry published in magazines and a high-profile anthology, Current Literature by the time she was only 15. She has close to 20 poetry collections with one (Distressing Dialogues) written under the pseudonym, Nancy Boyd. Some of her very popular poems are What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, Conscientious Objector, and The Spring And The Fall.
9. Anne Sexton
(November 9, 1928 – October 4, 1974)
A Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry, Anne Sexton is probably one of the most famous confessional poets. She shares in the story of the mental illness and depression that so many other poets have also suffered. Her works are revelations of the things she has been through including very personal things and even her relationships with her husband and children.
As a result of her mental illness, Anne was encouraged by her therapist, Dr. Martin Orne to write poetry as a means of escape. Apart from her poetry, her life was not one without its controversies as she was accused after her death of sexually assaulting her daughter, Linda Gray Sexton. Indications also emerged about her violent behavior towards her husband and daughters.
After many suicide attempts, she later succeeded in ending her life. The suicide, according to Dr. Orne was as a result of an affair she had with her therapist who replaced him.
Some of her most popular poems are 45 Mercy Street, Anna Who Was Mad, and Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty).
10. Gwendolyn Brooks
(June 7, 1917 – December 3, 2000)
Another of the most famous female poets is Gwendolyn Elizabeth who in 1950, became the first African American to receive the Pulitzer. Her works are completely different from what you will get with most others, as her poetry mostly revolved around the struggles of people and personal celebrations.
With a mother who was a school teacher, she was encouraged to start writing early because she was going to be Lady Paul Laurence Dunbar. She had her first poem published in American Childhood, a children magazine when she was just 13. By the time of her death, she had already had many works published with one (In Montgomery, and Other Poems) released after her death in 2003.
With many honors to her name including being the Poet Laureate of Illinois from 1968 till her death, some of her most popular poems are We Real Cool, The Crazy Woman, and My Dreams, My Works, Must Wait.