Don’t get me wrong: I love my guy poets. Edgar Allan Poe and his “tintinnabulation of the bells” and “Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore,’” give me chills every time. Robert Frost’s “miles to go before I sleep / miles to go before I sleep” grips my heart. And James Wright’s memorable last line from “A Blessing” about breaking into blossom—that’s real poetry!
But when I look for someone who understands me, who speaks for me, who writes of what concerns and affects me, I look to the women. Our country’s—our world’s—women poets write with one hand on the keyboard and one fist raised in the air, one hand gripping the pen and another rocking the cradle, one voice rising up above the others and another hushing the tears while spilling her own. More than ever right now in this time of war, violence against each other, violence against the earth, sickness, fear, and longing, we need voices of compassion and strength like only the women wordsmiths can offer.
I pray George Ella Lyon’s poem, “Prayer,” often these days. You’ll recognize its form:
“Our Mother Who Art
in the kitchen
cooking us up
hallowed may we see
all that is
Your kingdom here
delivered into our hands
Your will in children
and trees leafing out
as if it were Heaven.”
It’s a prayer familiar to many of us, reimagined for women, for mothers, sisters, girlfriends. It’s a poem for our sensitivities, our hopes, our griefs, our desires for the natural and human world. It isn’t about ego or power (though I dare say it’s not political). Lyon herself is an activist as well as a poet. She’s a mother, a musician, a friend.
So, what do women write about? Anything they want. I wouldn’t dare try to characterize women’s poetry as being anything but as wide-ranging as the individual poets themselves. So, I look for poems that move me, that strengthen me, that speak to what keeps me up at night. What I find is a multitude of voices from our elders and our youth.
I could name poets all day who have changed me with their words. For now, I want to offer a few that I find myself repeating these days like mantras, poems that give me hope. Some are classic, some are new. All resonate loudly.
Today, as our youth struggle with depression, anxiety, and identity, when life seems so hard they feel they can’t go on, the late Gwendolyn Brooks’s offers this wrenching yet life-giving poem, “To the Young Who Want To Die.” She writes:
“Sit down. Inhale. Exhale.
The gun will wait. The lake will wait.
The tall gall in the small seductive vial
Will wait will wait:
Will wait a week: will wait through April.
You do not have to die this certain day.
Graves grow no green that you can use.
Remember, green’s your color. You are Spring.”
Marie Howe lost her brother to AIDS, but in “What the Living Do,” she describes the most important thing, which is how we learn to go on, even after a loss so great we can hardly breathe:
“But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep
for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless:
I am living. I remember you.”
Who might know better about loss in 2022 than the people of Ukraine. Kyiv poet Lbuya Yakimchuk knows well that pain. She writes, “Language is as beautiful as this world. So when someone destroys your world, language reflects that.”
In her poem entitled, “Decomposition,” she addresses the destruction of her homeland:
“I stare into the horizon
it has narrowed into a triangle
sunflowers dip their heads in the field
black and dried out, like me
I have gotten so very old. . .”
I return to George Ella Lyon and her final lines from “Prayer:”
“For it is Yours,
this kitchen we call Universe
. . .
if we don’t blow it up
if we don’t tear it down
. . .
We better make room at the table
before She yells – OUT!
and turns our table over,
before She calls it off
this banquet we’ve been hoarding
we aim to save
As Jamaican American poet June Jordan writes,
they are things that I do
in the dark
reaching for you
whoever you are
are you ready?”
Are we ready? In the dark times, and even in times of joy and promise, it’s the women who can cut to the core of what matters, who speak from the heart to all of us, whoever we are, wherever we live.
Barbara Presnell is a poet and essayist who lives in Lexington, NC. She is Senior Lecturer Emeritus in the Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies Department at UNC-Charlotte.