Where were the women? A sophomore in college, I searched for poems by women in my Norton Anthology of Poetry, a 1983 edition edited by six men. Unless “Anonymous” was indeed a woman, Queen Elizabeth I was the only worthy female poet writing in English from the 13th century until the mid 17th century. When America’s first collection of verse appeared in 1650, The Tenth Muse by Anne Bradstreet, the author had to pretend it’d been published without her knowledge. After her, only two women made the cut until Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the 19th century. Out of 222 poets, 25 were women—and all but three were white. I slammed the book shut.
From that moment on, throughout my life, I’ve sought out poetry by women. While many female poets have gradually become recognized as part of the literary canon during the past two hundred years, out of 52 United States Poet Laureates, 12 have been women, of which only four were women of color.
In 2002, Ms. published its “Best of 30 Years: Poetry and Fiction” issue celebrating the magazine’s historical role as a “discovery place of first publication for many a now-established poet and fiction writer, serving as a ‘safe-house’ for work considered too daring, too angry, too feminist, too something to see printed elsewhere.” Reading that issue back in 2002, I wondered what might have been the fate of those famous writers Ms. first published if, instead, the editors hadn’t considered their work.
Sixteen years later, Ms. is carving out a new discovery place for riotous, righteous and resonant feminist poetry to nourish and give voice to a rising tide of female resistance—and you’ve clicked right into it.
Welcome to Ms. Muse, a recurring series with a mission to spotlight women making waves with poetry. It will be my great delight to amplify the voices of emerging and mid-career poets as well as established artists. Expect poems by a diverse spectrum of women. Expect to meet, see yourself in and hear the lived experiences of women of color, queer and trans women, differently-abled women and women with low or no income. Expect to find solidarity and commonality—and be challenged by—women of every age, religion and ethnicity.
Writer Joyce Hayden told me she seeks out poems by women partly because of a reading she once attended in Amherst, Massachusetts, during which a male poet who cofounded a notable literary journal said: “Dear women, please stop sending me your divorce poems. It’s not poetry.” My friend walked out. “It was fine for men to write about their war experiences and the fallout when they came back home,” she says, “but he was saying that the wars women fight on a daily basis cannot be a subject of art.”
Many of my women friends say they’ve spent much of their lives reading about men’s lives and experiences. Couldn’t we all—including men—easily spend the rest of our lives trying to balance the scale by reading the work of women? “Without female poets and their work,” writer Greta Edwards says, “this woman would be dead—not just dead to the flesh, but in spirit.”
In the aftermath of the 2016 election and the unfolding sea change known as the #MeToo movement, a co-alum, Alison Widmer, says: “I want more art, more everything from women. I’m getting my sense of self and community back, bit by bit, by seeking women’s art and letting it move me.” Her use of the word “letting” reminds me that one’s experience of art tends to be shaped and influenced by powerful gatekeepers, but engaging with art is an intimate act.
In that summer 2002 issue, Ms. editors noted that “art and literature can go where the best journalism and political analysis cannot—beyond the brain and even the heart, into that place of ultimate freedom: the imagination.”
Poetry gives voice to the voiceless on behalf of women silenced for centuries. Poetry can be potent medicine, essential and redemptive—even lifesaving. We turn to poetry to travel, to fathom “the other” as one another, to bear witness, to provoke. We turn to poetry to feel less alone, more like ourselves, to remember home and to come home.
Now, as we continue to rise up and resist, we’re turning to poetry. An antidote to the news, Ms. Muse has arrived to fortify—and defy.