In previous centuries, many women wrote and published – when they were able to publish – in defiance of social, educational and financial constraints, and their work was often condemned, mocked or simply overlooked. Anthologies tended to represent only a handful of female voices, and always the same few. This National Poetry Day, says Ana Sampson, why not explore the work of one of these formidable – but largely forgotten – female poets?
Lola Ridge (1873-1941)
Lola Ridge was an activist before it was fashionable, taking part in protest marches, occasionally getting arrested, and holding lively parties in her shabby New York apartment for other writers. (Poet William Carlos Williams mocked her for slumming it but Lola’s sincerity doesn’t seem to have been in doubt.) She wrote about subjects considered shocking at the time, including poverty and race riots. The Ghetto and Other Poems immortalised a deprived Lower East Side Jewish community and made a splash on publication, though her work had plunged into relative obscurity until quite recently.
Lola was always sickly though this impression was reinforced by the fact that she lied about her age, so people – including the writer of her obituary – thought she was ten years younger than she actually was when she died of tuberculosis. I fell in love with her poems The Fog, A Memory and Submerged.
Mary Leapor (1722–1746)
Mary’s father was a Northamptonshire gardener and, despite her lack of education, she had great writing ambitions. As a cook-maid, Mary was lucky with one employer – Susanna Jennens was a poet herself and encouraged Mary – but less so with another, who fired her for writing while his dinner burned. Her poems protested against the lack of opportunities for working-class women, and condemned the way society valued women only for their faces, figures and fortunes.
‘Country-house verses’ – in which a poet praises a patron’s rural residence (presumably in the hope of plenty of jolly weekend invitations) – were fashionable in the seventeenth century. Leapor’s satirical contribution to the genre, Crumble-Hall, has at its centre Mira, the servant whose labours of basting, polishing and scouring enable her employers’ leisured lifestyle. Mary argued fiercely for women’s rights. Her poem Man the Monarch laments that:
‘Sires, Brothers, Husbands, and commanding Sons,
The Sceptre claim; and ev’ry Cottage brings
A long Succession of Domestic Kings.’
When Mary died of measles aged only twenty-four she had never seen her work in print, but after her death it attracted fans including leading writers such as Samuel Richardson.
Edith Södergran (1892-1923)
Edith was a Swedish-speaking Finnish poet born in St Petersburg during a wildly turbulent time for Russia. Her health was never strong, and her family faced great financial hardships, but Edith spoke several languages and published her first collection of poems aged only twenty-four.
Edith’s modern style was way ahead of its time – critics were largely scathing about it, though her poetry became hugely influential after her untimely death from tuberculosis aged only thirty-one. On Foot I Wandered Through the Solar System and The Stars are intriguing places to start.
Ana Sampson’s new book She is Fierce: Brave, Bold and Beautiful Poems by Women is out now, and one of the books we are recommending for National Poetry Day.