Five forgotten female poets to rediscover and eight reasons poetry is good for your soul
Ana Sampson, editor of She Is Fierce: Brave, Bold and Beautiful Poems by Women, on some favourites
Ana Sampson: A poem can whisk you out of the everyday. Think of them as an escape hatch from the daily grind
I loved researching She Is Fierce and uncovering amazing poems by writers I hadn’t heard of before, and I hope many of these poets will be new to readers, too. Some of them were unpublished or ignored during their lifetimes, and others enjoyed success at the time but have fallen from fashion since. Here are some wonderful poems by some largely forgotten writers to seek out.
Mabel Esther Allan (1915-1998)
Although her terrible eyesight meant she hated school, Mabel decided aged eight that she wanted to be a writer and her supportive father bought her a desk and taught her to type. Her first book was published in 1945 and she went on to write about 170 children’s books including the Drina series of ballet stories. During the second World War she served in the Women’s Land Army in Cheshire and taught in a school for deprived children in Liverpool.
Her poem Immensity, a beautiful and evocative poem written during the Battle of Britain, explored how it felt to have a loved one in the skies.
Pauli Murray (1910-1985)
Anna Pauline Murray was an absolute warrior. She was arrested for sitting in the “whites only” section of a Virginia bus in 1940, long before the civil rights movement gained momentum, and she continued fighting for civil and women’s rights all her life, advocating intersectionality before it was a cause celebre. She faced prejudice throughout her studies because of her gender and race, but eventually became California’s first black attorney general. Her 1950 book, States’ Laws on Race and Colour, was a key contribution to the civil rights movement and she was appointed to the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women by John F Kennedy in 1961. Pauli had a brief marriage to a man, which was annulled, and several relationships with women. She felt herself to be male (though she used the feminine pronoun), and wrestled with her gender identity all her life.
I adore her poem Ruth, which I included in She is Fierce. You can read more about her amazing achievements here.
Anna Wickham (1883-1947)
Anna Wickham moved between Australia, France and the UK – her pseudonym Wickham was inspired by a Brisbane street. Her possessive husband tried to put an end to her singing and writing career, which led to a breakdown and a brief spell in an asylum. Anna published several collections of poetry which were hugely popular especially in America, and had many literary friends including Katherine Mansfield and HD (with whom she may have had an affair). However, she did fall out with some of those friends: she was rumoured to have thrown poet Dylan Thomas out of her house during a snowstorm.
I love that she calls her love moderner “than Broadway, or an airship, or Paris lingerie” in A Poet Advises a Change of Clothes. The images have dated, but elegantly – they’re still fabulous.
Laura Grey (1889-1914)
Laura Grey was the stage name of Joan Lavender Baillie Guthrie, an idealistic young suffragette whose suicide – by drug overdose – shocked society. Lavender, as she was known, acted on the London stage until she was arrested for window-breaking during the campaign to win votes for women. She was jailed in Holloway Prison with other suffragettes including Emily Wilding Davison, and force-fed after a hunger strike. While there, she wrote a poem To D.R. (thought to be fellow campaigner Dorothea Rock) that was published as part of an anthology called Holloway Jingles by the Women’s Social and Political Union. Lavender was released after four months but her health never recovered, and she began to rely on tranquilisers. Her mother was desperately worried about her mental state, but was unable to get Lavender the help that might have prevented her tragic suicide.
Read To D.R. and find out more about Laura here.
Edith Södergran (1892-1923)
Edith was a Swedish-speaking Finnish poet born in St Petersburg during a wildly turbulent time for Russia. Her health was never strong, and her family faced great financial hardships, but Edith spoke several languages and published her first collection of poems aged only 24. Edith’s modern style was way ahead of its time – critics trashed it, though her poetry became hugely influential after her untimely death from tuberculosis aged only 31.
I can’t find my favourite translation – which is included in She is Fierce – online but here is a similar one of On Foot I Wandered Through the Solar System and I like The Stars too – the clanging star is a gorgeous image.
Eight reasons poetry is good for your soul
It slows us down
Life moves fast, and so do we: especially in a smartphone age when we’re constantly ticking things off our to-do list while on the train or even (whisper it) on the loo. It’s impossible to read unfamiliar poetry fast, though. You can’t skim read a poem you’ve never seen before as you could an article or social media post – you need a moment to absorb something less simple, but more nourishing.
It can stop you losing your temper
When tempers are frayed, counting to ten is good – but reciting a silly or calming poem is better (out loud, it has the added benefit of getting the attention of tantrum-throwing children, but in your head is probably better for that trying meeting at work.)
It exercises emotional muscles
Poetry brings all the benefits that reading novels does – fresh ideas and points of views, a glimpse of exotic or fictional lands, an emotional and empathetic boost – often delivered in easily digestible, bite-sized chunks. Unless you’re embarking on The Iliad.
It can stretch our imagination
Reading can boost our vocabulary, but there’s a freedom in the way poets can express themselves that prose rarely matches, and it helps teach us to be more imaginative in our thought and how we express ourselves.
It can bring childhood memories to life
We have all absorbed poetry from childhood onwards – think of nursery songs and rhymes, and the fact that the books we read to toddlers usually rhyme. Certain poems can whisk us back to our childhood in an instant. Poetry has also been successfully used as a therapeutic tool for patients with dementia, since the rhymes we learn early in life are often retained even when other memories are lost.
It reduces feelings of isolation
It is always heartening to know we are not alone in our experiences. Somebody has felt as desperate as we sometimes do, and expressed it far better than we could. If you’re anxious, lovelorn or bereaved, by reading poetry you will discover others who have walked that road. And poets offer some brilliant, pithy and memorable advice. Dorothy Parker’s splendid company at any time, but particularly if you’ve just been dumped.
It can boost your good mood
Poetry isn’t just for hard times. It’s a thrill to read a poem that encapsulates and underlines – more elegantly than we ever could – how it feels to be serenely content, or madly joyous, or head over heels in love. It’s one of the reasons that poetry is so popular for wedding readings.
It can transport you to another place
A poem can whisk you out of the everyday. Think of them as an escape hatch from the daily grind. Verses about woods on snowy evenings, sunlit woods or the rugged Lakes can provide a mental gulp of healthy fresh air when you’re actually stuck on a delayed train or tapping your foot in a waiting room. How much more restorative would a poem be than yet another scroll through your social media feeds?
She is Fierce: Brave, Bold and Beautiful Poems by Women, edited by Ana Sampson (Macmillan)