In honour of International Women’s Day, Ruth Padel, prizewinning poet and former chair of the UK Poetry Society, chooses her favourite poets who happen to be women.
“These are poets whose work I need, treasure, and keep learning from.”
She is in fragments but still astonishing. Just look at her beautiful language, her total swashbuckling trust in the image to say it all (anyone who loves haiku will love her too), her mix of gorgeous metaphor with direct emotion: “The stars are sinking; the watch goes by; I lie alone.” Despite having been translated, imitated and versioned down the millennia, these fragments are still fresh, heartbreaking, memorable and strong. She lays out the stall for us all, both in what she is saying and how she says it. What do people care for? “Look at that other person also in love with you.” She celebrates, and questions, and turns in the light, the beauty of what is.
2. Emily Dickinson
You can’t do without her: those leaps of idea between one beautiful, surprising phrase and the next. Mysterious, ferociously original, poignant and evocative: the power of pure thought compressed to diamond.
3. Elizabeth Bishop
The poet who, as Robert Lowell put it, “makes the casual perfect”. I love the observations, the natural world, the working out of mysterious feeling and above all the way she refines the exactness of her thinking and feeling by her precision of language. She addresses all the big things, but so quietly you don’t notice at first, as in her poem ‘One Art’, which concludes “The art of losing’s not hard to master/ Though it might look like (Write it!) like disaster”.
4. Anna Akhmatova
A genius. Her life was terrible (she was an iconic figure for the voices repressed by Stalin) but her elegant poems are wild, strange, free and very human. She addresses every feeling, even in the midst of horror; even guilt about her son: “Sleep, my quiet one, sleep,/ my boy. I am a bad mother.”
5. Marina Tsvetaeva
“There are four of us,” said Akhmatova of the poets who kept poetry and life going under Stalin, referring to herself, Boris Pasternak, Osip Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva. Tsvetaeva, like Akhmatova, was another genius. Her life, too, was hell, and her poetry is jagged, stark, passionate, self-critical, full of extraordinary images. I have seen it speak directly to audiences from Washington to Nazareth. “Your name is a bird in my hand/ a piece of ice on the tongue.”
6. Sylvia Plath
Like Sappho, she found, in her mature voice, a complete swift trust in the image to say everything and anything. As reader or poet, you can’t do without her: the savage beauty fusing passion and language.
7. Anne Carson
So gifted and varied. Her novel-in-verse, Autobiography of Red, is a revelation – and she has made a wonderful translation of Sappho, too.
8. Carol Ann Duffy
Everyone today knows and loves The World’s Wife and the recent love poems in Rapture, but she made her name by much more political work (and a different kind of love poem) during the Thatcher years; some of the strongest and freshest work that came out of the late 20th century in the UK. Yeatsian lyric grace coupled with humour, social criticism and quick, laughing, dry intelligence.
9. Jo Shapcott
So varied and original. Her words are always surprising, the thought is always subtle and new: an extraordinary poet of the body, the secret physical life, with a star-searching intelligence and imagination.
10. Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill
She writes in Irish Gaelic but has been translated by Paul Muldoon, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and others: again, the language is fresh and new, and reminds you all the time of what an extraordinary thing it is, to communicate your feeling, thought and experience of the world as truly as possible, in language – above all, in a poem. “I place my hope on the water/ in this little boat/ of the language.”
Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/mar/08/women.poets