April is National Poetry Month, a.k.a. the time of year when literature nerds like myself get to have our moment in the sun! Originating in 1996, it was created by the Academy of American Poets “in celebration of writing, reading, and enjoying poetry and those who make it.” -Newsweek
For as long as I can remember, I have been an avid reader, writer, and follower of poetry. In case you were wondering, yes, I am one of those hippie-dippie chicks who wears sundresses year round and genuinely enjoys kombucha, but I promise my adoration of poetry is not just fad. The lyrical, often emotional nature of the form has just always appealed to me.
In fact, one of the very first poems I ever wrote was about a romantic whirlwind love affair. Now, what did pre-pubescent Brittani actually know about love at that time? Not much. And if we’re being honest, the same could be said for 22 year old Brittani today.
I don’t know what I’m feeling
But I know I only feel it with you
I don’t know why when I’m sleeping
I wake up from dreams about you
Could it be?
You are the one for me?
What my friends have been saying is true?
Because you are so heavenly.
And I love everything about you.
First of all, let’s all just say a collective prayer for this young version of me. She was obviously going through a difficult time, but it is not surprising that mini-Brittani used poetry to work through it. I have always loved words and the challenge that arises when trying to string them together in rhyme and/or reason.
As a child, “Goodnight Moon” was always my go-to. Then, it was the iconic works of Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss. Once I started school, I was introduced to books like “Falling Up” and “Where the Sidewalk Ends” and thoroughly convinced myself that I would somehow marry Shel Silverstein.
All of these works were incredibly powerful to me growing up. I marveled at the way they told complex stories about life in tiny, bite-sized stanzas. As an adult, I recognize that there are an infinite number of ways to craft a poem, but most of them serve this same childlike purpose.
To inform, entertain, enrapture, and connect human beings through the power of literature. Many of the literary and oratory methods of communicating that are still praised today are rooted in poetry. Everything from the ancient Greek epics you are required to read in high school to your favorite rapper’s hip hop lyrics were inspired by this form of writing, hence the importance of celebrating National Poetry Month.
While it is true that National Poetry Month honors all kinds of poetry, it seems like a particularly great time to celebrate the women who have contributed to this medium. Considering how long female voices were excluded and dismissed from academic or traditional literature, more lyrical forms of storytelling like poetry were often used by women who wanted to share their stories.
“Like music, writing, and other forms of art, poetry has the power to inspire, to provoke, to motivate, to connect, and to educate, and when it comes to feminism, sometimes, there couldn't be an easier messenger.”
-Sadie Trombetta for Bustle
In honor of this glorious month and all the ladies who deserve to be celebrated alongside it, here are some of the most essential and inspiring poems written by women!
Dr. Maya Angelou
I mean, how could I NOT include this classic piece? Dr. Maya Angelou, often considered the godmother of poetry, has a body of work under her belt that is unmatched in volume or resonance. Any selection of hers is a certified gem, but “Phenomenal Woman” is one of her most important.
I'm a woman.
Angelou’s infamous words ascend to the level of affirmation, serving as an anthem for women everywhere. Reading, and certainly reciting, this poem demands us to assert our power and presence in the world. It demands that we claim our beauty, our strut, our confidence and our style.
Milk and Honey
26-year-old Rupi Kaur may not have been the first Instagram entrepreneur poet, but she is certainly one of the most notable. Though Kaur has risen to the status of New York Times Best Seller with her collections of works, including this first one “Milk and Honey,” she began by posting her poems to Tumblr, Instagram, and other social media sites. These digital platforms moved beyond traditional print publications and helped to usher in a literary revival with Kaur’s serving as the guiding force. To this day, poetry is still “one of the fastest-growing categories in publishing” -The Atlantic
“Instagram poems” like Kaur’s are presented in short bursts to optimize on scroll time and legibility, but contrary to popular belief, this does not take away from their power. If anything, it adds to it.
The themes of these works tend to center on self-development, love, fear, and purpose; mighty ideas that are dissected down to their meatiest bones just like the books I loved as a kid. If you’re ever in need of a little inspiration, scroll through the hashtags #poetsofinstagram and #instapoet in order to sprinkle a little bit of this literary magic on your feed.
Another young writer capitalizing on the newer methods of consuming literature is Nayyirah Waheed. Although very little is actually known about her personal life or upbringing, Waheed shares her powerful bites of poetry with over 700,000 followers on Instagram every day.
‘i love myself’.
Free of proper punctuation, grammar, and capitalization, Waheed’s work is all about her words. Her poems may appear bare, but they are actually drenched in emotion. Her laser tight focus on love, femininity, race, and divinity has managed to touch people’s hearts and connect people all across the globe on the most human of levels.
Cape Verdean Blues
If you’re not already familiar with the stunning literary debut that is Shauna Barbosa’s “Cape Verdean Blues,” National Poetry Month is the perfect time to dive in.
The young Cape Verdean-American writer translates the stories of her childhood and the comments on the ways her upbringing as a first-generation American influenced (and continues to influence) her navigation of this world. Deeply immersed in themes of cultural identity, community, and home, you can’t help but to be pulled into Barbosa’s world.
Let him be an instrument
in a jazz song: trombone, bass, and snare
The ship carrying his brothers and sisters.
If rain falls on the land he can't live on,
let him be a wildflower there.
Regardless of whether or not you are the child of immigrants, there is something in “Cape Verdean Blues” that will sit on your soul. In Barbosa’s own words, the works are all about the human condition of living. “What comes first? Identity or experience? Does that question make sense? What’s true for me may not be true for you, and that’s what the book is about. Questioning experiences, finding our own way.” -Shauna Barbosa for OkayPlayer
For colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf
The late Ntozake Shange, who passed away late last year, was responsible for raising up generations of black women with her seminal work “for colored girls.” When the piece premiered in 1976, it was only the second show written by a black woman to ever play on Broadway. Although presented as a play and then adapted to two seperate films in 1982 and 2010, “for colored girls” is actually a choreopoem. Each of the seven characters are referred to only by a color (Lady in Brown, Lady in Red, etc.) and maneuver through a variety of difficult situations.
i usedta live in the world
really be in the world
free & sweet talkin
good mornin & thank-you & nice day
i cant now
i cant be nice to nobody
nice is such a rip-off
regular beauty & a smile in the street
is just a set-up
News of Shange’s death rocked artistic and cultural communities near and far. In approximately twenty poems, “for colored girls” managed to illuminate experiences of being a black woman that rang true all around the world. For this reason, “for colored girls” is revered as one of the most important theatrical works of the 20th century and is still produced in regional theatres across the globe.
A Story Like Mine
Halsey’s Speech at the 2018 Women’s March Speech
Ashley Nicolette Frangipane is known more commonly by her stage name, Halsey. At only 24, the Billboard-charting popstar has achieved massive success in the music and fashion industries, but few are familiar with her success as a writer and activist, too. In 2018, Halsey was invited to speak at the National Women’s March. Rather than delivering a traditional speech, she wrote a poem to serve as her rallying cry.
Many of poetry’s biggest naysayers relegate the form to being outdated or out of touch with reality. Fortunately, self-declared “art-ivists” like Halsey are working to change this perception. In “A Story Like Mine,” the young singer denounced sexual assault and all the people who perpetuate it in our society. Not only was her speech incredibly popular garnering millions of views online, but it was also incredibly impactful and empowered other women to write their stories too.
If you have gotten a late start to National Poetry Month, fear not! There are so many ways to continue supporting the mission of this month and all the work that stems from it. Research upcoming poetry slams or open mic nights in your local area, peruse through some of the most popular poetry blogs like WriteOutLoud.net or The Poetry Project. Easiest of all, take a scroll through the #NationalPoetryMonth thread on your favorite social media platform and engage with everyone participating in this lit (see what I did there?) celebration.