How important it is for us to recognise and celebrate our heroes and she-roes!
– Maya Angelou, who was born 90 years ago today.
As a poet Angelou channelled her Virago strength into empowering poetry. She always promoted the work of women and the importance of literature so we’re celebrating 90 years since her birth by continuing her good work.
Maya Angelou was definitely a Virago woman. Her seminal book, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, is even published by a publishing house which shares our name! We hope if she were alive today she might be proud of the project we’re running here. She was passionate about women’s right and women’s writing and often talked of the power of literature to inspire. So we’re celebrating her birthday in a way we hope she’d enjoy. In honour of Maya Angelou, here’s a collection of poetry for virago women: these are the female poets who inspire us to be #phenomenalwomen.
1. Maya Angelou – Still I Rise
Let’s kick off with Maya Angelou’s own poem, Still I Rise, which talks about having the resilience to continue when others try to beat you down, and which celebrates female sassiness and strength:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Read the whole poem here.
2. Maya Angelou – Phenomenal Woman
‘Phenomenal Woman’ is another wonderful example of Maya Angelou’s empowering Virago spirit. It’s full of confidence and sunshine and self determination. A truly Virago poem!
Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Read the full poem here:
It’s no surprise that a poem this strong would be the favourite of inspirational women everywhere. There have been some brilliant women who’ve recited this.
Hear Serena Williams read Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise in the video below, recorded before just Serena won the 2016 Wimbledon Women’s Tennis final and in the process equalled the world record.
3. Wendy Cope – Differences of Opinion
A true national treasure, Wendy Cope is one of Britain’s best loved poets. One of her best Virago Poems is Differences of opinion. The whole poem is below:
Differences of opinion
He tells her that the earth is flat —
He knows the facts, and that is that.
In altercations fierce and long
She tries her best to prove him wrong.
But he has learned to argue well.
He calls her arguments unsound
And often asks her not to yell.
She cannot win. He stands his ground.
The planet goes on being round.
Read more of Wendy Cope’s poetry here.
4. Hollie McNish – Mathematics
Wise, rude, sharp, and totally unique, Hollie McNish’s poetry performances have been watched by millions on YouTube and she’s been described as the most important spoken-word artist of her generation.
And when I meet these paper claims
That one of every new that came
Takes away ones daily wage
I desperately want to scream
‘Your maths is stuck in primary’
Watch her recite the whole poem below:
5. Sylvia Plath – Lady Lazarus
Sylvia Plath is one of the defining voices in twentieth-century poetry. Her achievement is even more remarkable given that she only published a single volume in her life time. Ariel covers women’s creativity, motherhood, and the female voice. Her poetry is fiercely defiant of the sexist world of 1960s America in which she lived, and one of the most ferociously Virago poems in Ariel is Lady Lazarus:
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
Read the whole poem here.
6. Imani Cezanne- Heels
A powerful slam poem which demolishes one of the stereotypes around women’s appearance, Heels encourages women to dress for themselves – not for men. Imani Cezanne flaunts her self-love and her confidence and she encourages you to follow suit.
I wear heels because it’s useless to cater to the insecure.
Watch her perform the whole poem below:
7. Amanda Lovelace – The Princess Saves Herself in This One
Winner of the 2016 Goodreads Choice Award, the princess saves herself in this one is a collection of poetry about resilience. It is about writing your own ending. Lovelace’s book is divided into four different parts: the princess, the damsel, the queen, & you. Here’s the title poem:
This independent review summarises the power of The Princess Saves Herself in This One, better than we could:
“Gut wrenching at times and exhilaratingly inspiring in others. I finished it in maybe 3 hours, if that, and I have absolutely zero regrets about it. If you want a good Sunday afternoon read that will tear on your heart strings, comes with a trigger warning, and will leave you feeling strong & beautiful, then this book is for you. It dives deep and swims wide, so fair warning. But you will not be able to put it down. So you can’t say I didn’t warn you..”
8. Lily Myers- Shrinking Women
Shrinking women, Lily Myers’ slam poem expresses the pressure women feel to take up less and less space, to be quiet, to be small and to eat sparingly.
I have been taught accommodation.
My brother never thinks before he speaks.
I have been taught to filter.
“How can anyone have a relationship to food?” He asks, laughing, as I eat the black bean soup I chose for its lack of carbs.
I want to tell say: we come from difference, Jonas,
you have been taught to grow out
I have been taught to grow in
you learned from our father how to emit, how to produce, to roll each thought off your tongue with confidence, you used to lose your voice every other week from shouting so much
I learned to absorb
Watch Lily Myers perform the full poem below.
9. Adrienne Rich – Power
Adrienne Rich was an American poet, essayist and radical feminist. She was called “one of the most widely read and influential poets of the second half of the 20th century”. Her poem ‘Power’, about Marie Curie, speaks about the strength and fortitude of women.
She died a famous woman denying
her wounds came from the same source as her power
Read the full poem here:
Another poem of hers, the very popular ‘Planetarium’ is full of energy, science, fun and most importantly “woman”:
I am a galactic cloud so deep so invo-
luted that a light wave could take 15
years to travel through me And has
taken I am an instrument in the shape
of a woman trying to translate pulsations
into images for the relief of the body
and the reconstruction of the mind.
Read the full poem here.
10. Rupi Kaur – milk and honey
No list of Virago poetry would be complete without “instagram poet” Rupi Kaur, whose powerful poetry and revolutionary publishing technique has inspired a new generation of girls and young women to love poetry and love themselves. She writes short, sharp, sweet poetry with an empowering message and illustrations. Here are some of our favourites:
If this post has made you hungry for more poetry, why not check out our explainer vid about another feminist icon and inspirational female poet, the truly extraordinary HD- Hilda Doolittle, check it out here!
By Rose Nugee