Politics and Poetry: Feminism

In the last year, I’ve been giving a series of lectures titled Politics and Poetry for The Socialist Party USA. This is an excerpt from the Slam Poetry section of that lecture.


Image of Sylvia Plath
Image from PoetryFoundation.Org

So, Sylvia Plath. She’s not my favorite, but one can’t talk about feminist poetry without talking about Sylvia Plath. She’s most well known for her work The Bell Jar, which is semi-autobiographical and was published right before her death. She had a tumultuous life, attempting suicide multiple times until the last time, when she stuck her head in an oven with the gas on in 1963. She was married to another poet, Ted Hughes, who cheated on her, often, and had two children. She is known for her intensely autobiographical works and the social restrictions facing women. This poem, Lady Lazarus is from her book Collected Poems and was written in 1960:

Lady Lazarus

I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it——

A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify?——

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.

Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me

And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot——
The big strip tease.
Gentlemen, ladies

These are my hands
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Dying
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.
It’s the theatrical

Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
Amused shout:

‘A miracle!’
That knocks me out.
There is a charge

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart——
It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby

That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash—
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there——

A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Beware
Beware.

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.


Image of Marge Piercy
Image from PoetryFoundation.Org

Marge Piercy is a well known feminist writer, poet, and memoirist. She is known for examining women, relationships, and emotions in her works in new and provocative ways. Born in 1936, Piercy was heavily influenced by the great depression her parents suffered through. In the 50’s, she attempted to go to enter a MA program and found that higher education was filled with, what she called “Dominant Freudian values” so she became a writer instead. She’s still alive today and living in Massachusetts and, to date, she has 17 poetry collections under her belt. Here’s one of my favorite poems of hers, “Barbie Doll,” written in 1971:

This girlchild was born as usual
and presented dolls that did pee-pee
and miniature GE stoves and irons
and wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy.
Then in the magic of puberty, a classmate said:
You have a great big nose and fat legs.

She was healthy, tested intelligent,
possessed strong arms and back,
abundant sexual drive and manual dexterity.
She went to and fro apologizing.
Everyone saw a fat nose on thick legs.

She was advised to play coy,
exhorted to come on hearty,
exercise, diet, smile and wheedle.
Her good nature wore out
like a fan belt.
So she cut off her nose and her legs
and offered them up.

In the casket displayed on satin she lay
with the undertaker’s cosmetics painted on,
a turned-up putty nose,
dressed in a pink and white nightie.
Doesn’t she look pretty? everyone said.
Consummation at last.
To every woman a happy ending.


Picture of Audre Lorde
Image from WomensFoundationofCalifornia.Org

Next I wanted to look at a poet that’s been getting a lot of attention as of late (I wouldn’t call it a revival because she’s a popular poet, but with Black Lives Matter her work has had even more attention paid to it), Audre Lorde. Audre Lorde was the daughter of two West Indian parents who emigrated to New York. Born in 1934, she came to age during the civil rights movement and was an active and vocal participant. She also worked tirelessly against the Vietnam War and worked towards LGBQTA+ rights. Lorde described herself as a “black-lesbian feminist mother lover poet.” She was, to put it plainly (or, as I like to call it, Mimi-ese), a badass and anyone who has encountered her poetry would say the same. This is a short one of hers, but a great one that I think captures a lot of the themes she wrote on titled “Who said it was Simple” written in 1973:

There are so many roots to the tree of anger
that sometimes the branches shatter
before they bear.

Sitting in Nedicks
the women rally before they march
discussing the problematic girls
they hire to make them free.
An almost white counterman passes
a waiting brother to serve them first
and the ladies neither notice nor reject
the slighter pleasures of their slavery.
But I who am bound by my mirror
as well as my bed
see causes in colour
as well as sex

and sit here wondering
which me will survive
all these liberations.


A picture of Maya Angelou
Image from TheSource.Com

Another poet that kind of has to be on every feminist poetry list is Maya Angelou. She’s most recently known for being the poet laureate (the nation’s poet) under Obama, but well before her tenure as the nation’s poet, she was known for being a civil rights activist and feminist. Born in 1928, Maya Angelou lived through grew up at the end of the depression and into a world of segregation. At the age of 4 she went to live with her grandmother in Arkansas. At the age of 8, she was returned to her mother and her mother’s boyfriend molested and raped her (which is well documented in her life and autobiographical works, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings). The man was found guilty, but only spent a day in jail. Four days after her assaulter’s release, the man was found dead, most likely killed by one of Angelou’s uncles. She went mute for five years after that but developed a great memory and a deep love for literature during her silent years. She worked many jobs before becoming a poet from a fry cook to multiple positions in the sex trade – from table dancer to prostitute to madame. One thing that Angelou was was honest, and she felt that she shouldn’t hide any skeletons in her closet and pretend to be something she wasn’t – perfect. She went on to be a successful writer and poet. Her most famous work is “Caged Bird” from her Shaker, Why Don’t you Sing? collectection from 1983:

A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.


Image of Margaret Atwood
Image from Poets.Org

We’ll actually end on a Canadian feminist poet – and one of my favorite authors (novelists but her poems are great too, obviously, or I wouldn’t be including her on this list) – Margaret Atwood. In addition to being a poet and feminist, she is also a well known environmental activist and is a mutli-award winning author. On top of her novels, she has fifteen books of poetry published under her name and four collections of short stories. She is probably best known for her book (which every single person her should read) The Handmaid’s Tale, which is subsequently has also been made into a Hulu series with Elizabeth Moss. This poem titled “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing” was written in 1996 by Atwood and captures her style well:

The world is full of women
who’d tell me I should be ashamed of myself
if they had the chance. Quit dancing.
Get some self-respect
and a day job.
Right. And minimum wage,
and varicose veins, just standing
in one place for eight hours
behind a glass counter
bundled up to the neck, instead of
naked as a meat sandwich.
Selling gloves, or something.
Instead of what I do sell.
You have to have talent
to peddle a thing so nebulous
and without material form.
Exploited, they’d say. Yes, any way
you cut it, but I’ve a choice
of how, and I’ll take the money.

I do give value.
Like preachers, I sell vision,
like perfume ads, desire
or its facsimile. Like jokes
or war, it’s all in the timing.
I sell men back their worse suspicions:
that everything’s for sale,
and piecemeal. They gaze at me and see
a chain-saw murder just before it happens,
when thigh, ass, inkblot, crevice, tit, and nipple
are still connected.
Such hatred leaps in them,
my beery worshippers! That, or a bleary
hopeless love. Seeing the rows of heads
and upturned eyes, imploring
but ready to snap at my ankles,
I understand floods and earthquakes, and the urge
to step on ants. I keep the beat,
and dance for them because
they can’t. The music smells like foxes,
crisp as heated metal
searing the nostrils
or humid as August, hazy and languorous
as a looted city the day after,
when all the rape’s been done
already, and the killing,
and the survivors wander around
looking for garbage
to eat, and there’s only a bleak exhaustion.
Speaking of which, it’s the smiling
tires me out the most.
This, and the pretence
that I can’t hear them.
And I can’t, because I’m after all
a foreigner to them.
The speech here is all warty gutturals,
obvious as a slab of ham,
but I come from the province of the gods
where meanings are lilting and oblique.
I don’t let on to everyone,
but lean close, and I’ll whisper:
My mother was raped by a holy swan.
You believe that? You can take me out to dinner.
That’s what we tell all the husbands.
There sure are a lot of dangerous birds around.

Not that anyone here
but you would understand.
The rest of them would like to watch me
and feel nothing. Reduce me to components
as in a clock factory or abattoir.
Crush out the mystery.
Wall me up alive
in my own body.
They’d like to see through me,
but nothing is more opaque
than absolute transparency.
Look–my feet don’t hit the marble!
Like breath or a balloon, I’m rising,
I hover six inches in the air
in my blazing swan-egg of light.
You think I’m not a goddess?
Try me.
This is a torch song.
Touch me and you’ll burn.

Amanda Riggle

Amanda Riggle

Amanda is the Managing Editor at The Poetics Project and of The Socialist, the national magazine of The Socialist Party USA, as well as the Lead Editor of Pomona Valley Review's upcoming 11th issue. She graduated with a BA in English Education and a minor in Political Science. She is currently enrolled in an English MA program with an emphasis in Literature. During her free time, Amanda enjoys writing poetry, reading, traveling, crocheting, watching entire seasons of campy shows on Netflix, and, of course, writing blogs.
Amanda Riggle

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