“I still feel that poetry is not medicine — it's an X-ray. It helps you see the wound and understand it.” - Dunya Mikhail
There is something powerful about poetry. Just like an X-ray would, it offers a raw, intimate, and unapologetic glimpse into the inner workings of the author. At its essence, poetry is the truth, wrapped delicately with rhythm and poise.
April was national poetry month, so we felt inspired to round up a list of some of our favorite women poets to read during all this extra downtime. Especially in times of anxiety or uncertainty, reading poetry can stir emotion and inspiration, and these 7 poets are definitely nothing short of inspirational. All of these women bring their own unique histories and flair to their work — but what they have in common is their unparalleled command of the written word.
1. Sandra Cisneros
Sandra Cisneros is a Mexican-American poet, short story writer, novelist, essayist, performer, and artist. She has penned several poetry collections, including Bad Boys (1980), My Wicked Wicked Ways (1987), and Loose Woman (1994). A dual citizen of both the United States and Mexico, her writing eloquently and honestly explores the fluidity of what it means to wholly belong to two different worlds.
“Before you became a cloud, you were an ocean, roiled and murmuring like a mouth. You were the shadows of a cloud crossing over a field of tulips. You were the tears of a man who cried into a plaid handkerchief. You were the sky without a hat. Your heart puffed and flowered like sheets drying on a line.”
- Excerpt from Cisneros’ poem "Cloud"
2. Dunya Mikhail
Dunya Mikhail is an Iraqi poet who was born in Baghdad. She worked as a translator and journalist for the Baghdad Observer before fleeing her war-torn country to the United States. Her poems detail themes of pain and loss, but also hope, from the heart of a battered Iraq in a stunning display of courage, strength, and resilience.
“Everything has gender in Arabic. History is male. Fiction is female. Dream is male. Wish is female.
Feminine words are followed by a circle with two dots over. They call it the tied circle, knotted with wishes which come true only when forgotten or replaced by the wishes of others.
In the town of tied wishes, people feel great anticipation because a stranger will arrive today in her feminine sign. Someone says he saw her two dots glittering, refuting another’s vision of a cat’s eyes hunting in darkness. So scary, he says, how the moon hides in her red circle.”
- Excerpt from Mikhail’s poem "The Stranger in Her Feminine Sign"
3. Rupi Kaur
Probably one of the most popular poets of the 21st century, Rupi Kaur first stunned readers with her debut poetry collection, Milk and Honey, in 2014. Followed closely by her second collection, The Sun And Her Flowers, Kaur’s poetry delicately weaves stories of love, loss, trauma, healing, femininity, migration, and revolution with illustrations drawn by Kaur herself.
“i am water
soft enough to offer life tough enough to drown it away”
- Excerpt from "Milk and Honey"
3. Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou was a widely acclaimed American poet, storyteller, memoirist, performer, and civil rights activist. Her life story is just about as complex and fascinating as her writing, which discusses topics pertaining to Black beauty, the strength of women, and the human spirit. Her 1978 poem Still I Rise captures all of those themes in a powerful, uplifting story of liberation and resilience.
“You may write me down in history With your bitter, twisted lies, You may trod me in the very dirt But still, like dust, I'll rise.”
- Excerpt from Angelou’s poem "Still I Rise"
5. Mary Oliver
If sheltering in place has you with a case of cabin fever, reading Mary Oliver just might be the cure. This American poet’s writing tells vivid, captivating stories of wandering through the natural world. As fellow poet Maxine Kumin said: Oliver “stands quite comfortably on the margins of things, on the line between earth and sky, the thin membrane that separates human from what we loosely call animal.”
“I go down to the edge of the sea. How everything shines in the morning light! The cusp of the whelk, the broken cupboard of the clam, the opened, blue mussels, moon snails, pale pink and barnacle scarred— and nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered, split, dropped by the gulls onto the gray rocks and all the moisture gone."
- Excerpt from Oliver’s poem "Breakage"
6. Adrienne Rich
Adrienne Rich was a widely influential American poet and essayist whose career spanned seven decades. Her work explored topics of identity, sexuality, feminism, and politics, meaning she was often at the forefront in national discussions involving social justice.
“Saw you walking barefoot taking a long look at the new moon's eyelid later spread sleep-fallen, naked in your dark hair asleep but not oblivious of the unslept unsleeping elsewhere
Tonight I think no poetry will serve”
- Excerpt from "Tonight No Poetry Will Serve"
7. Warsan Shire
When she was just 27 years old, this prolific poet captured the attention of Beyoncé, who built her 2016 visual album Lemonade around the British-Somali writer’s words. Shire writes transparently about immigration, gender, war, and cultural assumptions, never skirting sensitive subjects, but always approaching them with the powerful grace and poise of a fearless writer.
“Two people who were once very close can without blame or grand betrayal become strangers. Perhaps this is the saddest thing in the world.”
- Warsan Shire
Do you have a favorite female poet? Share who you’re reading in the comments below!