100 Essential Modern Poems by Women

I’ve been without a bedside book of poetry for the past few months, for some reason. My normal habit is to read poetry at night, and take several months to finish an anthology or a book by a single author. This summer, however, I’ve been reading such engaging novels and memoirs that I haven’t wanted to put them down, and that’s cut into my bedside reading as well. But I received 100 Essential Modern Poems by Women, edited by Joseph Parisi and Kathleen Welton, for my birthday, so I decided to get back into my usual, beloved habit. This book made the habit easy, but it left me wanting more.

The approach that Parisi and Welton take here is to collect “essential” poems from forty-eight women, beginning with Emily Dickinson in the 1860s, and continuing to Louise Erdrich, who was born in 1954. Each poet’s work (usually only two poems at most) is preceded by a two- to three-page biography. For me, the biographies were the best part of the anthology, because while I’ve read long biographies of a couple of these women (Savage Beauty, about Edna St. Vincent Millay, for instance, is absolutely brilliant work), for the most part I knew only bare sketches of their lives if I knew anything at all. It was fascinating to see how many of them (far more than average) essentially had a room of their own: came from wealthy backgrounds, remained single and childless, devoted themselves to their work. Many (again, far more than average) were lesbians, receiving the support of other women in a way that some women poets found themselves isolated from.

It was also interesting to consider how time has affected our understanding of these women. Some, like Edith Sitwell, were hugely popular and influential in their day, but are not much read now. Others, like Ruth Stone, didn’t receive much recognition when they were writing, but are more and more appreciated now. It was a good argument for good poetry criticism: I thought of Randall Jarrell’s assessments of some of these poets in Kipling, Auden, & Co., and how on-the-money he always was.

The problem with this book, actually, for me, was the poems. When Parisi and Welton say “essential” poems, they really mean essential. These are the same poems everyone anthologizes everywhere. From Emily Dickinson (who, oddly, has ten poems included of the 100), you have “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” and “Because I could not stop for Death–” and “I heard a Fly buzz–when I died–” and all the others you read in high school English. From Dorothy Parker, “One Perfect Rose.” From Sylvia Plath, “Daddy.” From Elizabeth Bishop… nothing at all, because of complications with authorial permission, if you can believe that.

Of course, there were poems here I hadn’t read, and authors who were new to me. I’d never read anything by Lucille Clifton, for instance (“the lost baby poem,” which made me cry), or Eavan Boland (“The Pomegranate,” which I loved.) But I wanted more. Perhaps that was the intention: to make this a first dip into the waters. If so, this book mostly serves as a set of notes: look further into these women, into their words. Find more.

There were several poems that were new to me that I adored, but most of them are too long to quote here. I’ll leave you with a short one that made me say yes, yes that’s right, in the way good poetry should. This is “Legacies,” by Nikki Giovanni.

her grandmother called her from the playground

     “yes, ma’am,” said the little girl

     “i want chu to learn how to make rolls” said the old woman proudly

but the little girl didn’t want

to learn how because she knew

even if she couldn’t say it that

that would mean when the old one died she would be less

dependent on her spirit so

the little girl said

     “i don’t want to know how to make no rolls”

with her lips poked out

and the old woman wiped her hands on

her apron saying “lord

     these children”

and neither of them ever

said what they meant

and i guess nobody ever does

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17 Responses to 100 Essential Modern Poems by Women

  1. Kinna says:

    Thanks for pointing this out. I do a weekly feature on poetry on my blog. I’m also on the lookout for new women poets and your point about the much anthologized poems is spot on. Will check this out.

  2. christina says:

    I wish I loved poetry.

    • Jenny says:

      It’s a bit of an acquired taste. So acquire it! You might try Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled (Teresa reviewed it not too long ago.) It’s meant to get you writing poetry, but one of the effects of that book was to get me wanting to read more of it.

  3. Poetry is not my thing, although I do enjoy a spot of e. e. cummings here and there, but this does sound like a very good collection.

    • Jenny says:

      Interesting that you should say that. I was a big e.e. cummings fan until I read Randall Jarrell’s assessment of him. Then I wasn’t so sure. :)

  4. Jenny says:

    I need to read more by Nikki Giovanni. I saw a few poems by her posted during National Poetry Month and really liked them, but I keep forgetting about her when I am at the library.

  5. Melissa says:

    I’ve been trying to read more poetry (I like to read some before bedtime, too) and this one sounds like an interesting collection. I agree, the intent may have been to whet one’s appetite for further reading of the poets included in this collection. Sounds like a good one!

  6. anokatony says:

    I am a big fan of Randall Jarrell’s – that book you mention of his poetry criticism, ‘Kipling, Auden, and Co.’ really interests me. His review got me to read “The Man Who Loved Children” which is one of my favorite reads. Also his “Pictures of (at?) an Institution” is a wonderful novel.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, now, you’re making me jealous. I’m trying my best to get my hands on anything by Jarrell, with not much luck, and would love to read either of the ones you mention. Someday soon, I hope!

  7. Kathy Welton says:

    Hi–thank you for reading our book and writing about it! I appreciate your comments and am grateful that you enjoy these poems and poets.


    Kathleen Welton

  8. DKS says:

    Clifton’s ‘oh antic god’ is one of my favourites: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=176012

    Re. These are the same poems everyone anthologizes everywhere.

    That’s unfortunate. What they should do is this; they should publish 100 Essential Poems, and then they should publish The Book You Want To Read After You’ve Read 100 Essential Poems, which will be a collection of the work you look for once you’ve realised that you own three different copies of Daddy, and four different iterations of Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess and about ten of Dickinson’s buzzing flies in six separate fonts. The whole world will fall on this second book with complete relief.

    • Jenny says:

      [laughing] Yes! I would snap that anthology up! I like Emily Dickinson a lot, in fact, but some of her less-read poems are really lovely. Just for instance. Why don’t you edit it?

      • DKS says:

        Not a bad idea, if only I had complete copies of everybody’s oeuvre and a keen, extensive knowledge of poetry. But for that, I’d do it.

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