Maya Angelou stamp

A stamp printed in USA shows Maya Angelou Marguerite Annie Johnson (1928-2014), American singer and civil rights activist, Forever, 2015. (Photo by Olga Popova on Shutterstock)

Poetry is one of our earliest forms of art, starting as an oral tradition before our talented ancestors began writing poems down. Short and long, rhythmic and wandering, poems have come in all styles to the pleasure of readers for thousands of years. And while everyone has their own opinion on what makes good poetry, we can certainly agree that there are certain women who are in the running for being the best female poets of all time. 

Though we can often think of poetry as love sonnets, odes to nature, or expressions of spirituality, there is no limit to what the subject of a poem could be. They examine the human condition – our thoughts, emotions, and experience – and attempt to express the inexpressible with moving language and imagery. Some of the best female poets have used their work to promote change, as women have typically been underrepresented in the world of poetry. 

What makes a good poem? You might not think that science and English literature mix, but scientists at New York University proved that perhaps it can. In a recent study, researchers sought to figure out what makes poetry most appealing to readers, and discovered a few common denominators. The results showed that vivid imagery was the best predictor of whether someone would like a poem. The emotional “lightness” or “darkness” of a poem was also a predictive factor in a poem’s aesthetic appeal. By contrast, emotional arousal didn’t seem to play a role for participants.

Great female poets come from ancient Greece to the modern age, as their work continues to dazzle and inspire readers of all ages. There’s no doubt that the legacy of these great women will continue to move, entertain, and impact generations well into the future. Countless women have been poets, so it can seem like a difficult task to name the best female poets of all time. That’s why StudyFinds went to 10 expert websites to write this list of the best women writers of the genre. Tell us about your favorite poets – or ones we missed – and the poems you love in the comments below.

red roses on book

The List: Best Female Poets, According to Experts

1. Sappho (630 BCE – c. 570 BCE)

This ancient Greek from the island of Lesbos is widely regarded as one of the best female poets of all time. She is known for her lyrical poetry (meant to be accompanied by live music) that often spoke of love, lust, and joy, as well as life’s pains. “Affectionately known as the ‘tenth muse’ and ‘the poetess’ of her time, Sappho’s work inspired countless Greek poets to come (though most of her work is lost today),” writes Read Poetry

"Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works" by Diane J. Rayor and Andre Lardinois
“Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works” by Diane J. Rayor and Andre Lardinois

“She probably wrote around 10,000 lines of poetry but only around 650 of those survive today,” notes Leonardo Newtonic. “The poetry of Sappho was highly admired in antiquity. … Though most of her works were lost with time, her reputation as a brilliant poet has remained intact through the years. … Her poetry is notable for adopting the viewpoint of a specific person, in contrast to the earlier epic poets who present themselves more as ‘conduits of divine inspiration.’”

And Ruth Padel writes in The Guardian, “She is in fragments but still astonishing. Just look at her beautiful language, her total swashbuckling trust in the image to say it all (anyone who loves haiku will love her too), her mix of gorgeous metaphor with direct emotion. … Despite having been translated, imitated and versioned down the millennia, these fragments are still fresh, heartbreaking, memorable and strong.”

2. Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Known for her introverted and somewhat eccentric nature, this reclusive American is called the “poet of paradox.” She is particularly known for her unique style, syntax, and unique poetic form. “Despite writing prolifically, only a handful of her poems were published during her lifetime,” notes OnlyArt. “Her unique style of writing focused on themes such as death, faith, and nature and used unconventional capitalization and punctuation, which became a hallmark of her writing. … Dickinson’s work has had a lasting impact on American literature and is considered to be some of the greatest poetry in the English language.”

The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
“The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson”

“A variety of artists, particularly feminist-oriented artists, have found inspiration in Emily Dickinson’s life and work,” writes Spoila Mag. “Additionally, Dickinson’s work was known for her intricate epigrammatic verses that made her poetry distinct and her haunting personal voice and enigmatic brilliance.”

“Throughout her life, Dickinson was termed eccentric, and very few people realized her huge talent. After she died, people came to know about her works, especially the 1,800 poems she had composed,” states Superprof. “At the start, there was a mixed reaction to her writings, with some commending her rare originality and individuality, while others were critical of her peculiar style. In the early 20th-century, people started taking a lot of interest in Emily’s poems, and critics also understood the unevenness in her works was purely artistic.”

3. Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)

This American poet and novelist is remembered as a rebellious, though tragic soul. Her work often explores heavy themes and is highly captivating. “Girls and women who struggle with depression, isolation, and loneliness consider her an icon,” says Capitalize My Title. “Plath’s first poetry collection, The Colossus and Other Poems, tackled heavy subjects ranging from death and duty to the suffering of women who don’t prescribe to traditional ideas of femininity.”

“Her work is known for its confessional themes, including mental illness, death, and suicide,” writes OnlyArt. “Her poetry often explores her own experiences and emotions with raw honesty. Plath’s most famous poems include ‘Lady Lazarus,’ ‘Ariel,’ and ‘Daddy.’ Her work continues to influence contemporary poets and is widely studied in literature courses.”

“Like Sappho, she found, in her mature voice, a complete swift trust in the image to say everything and anything,” states The Guardian. “As reader or poet, you can’t do without her: the savage beauty fusing passion and language.”

4. Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

This American poet was also a novelist and civil rights activist. Her work is known for highlighting how love and positive themes can overcome the less noble side of human nature. “She wrote about themes of racism, identity, and empowerment, drawing on her own experiences growing up in the South and working in the civil rights movement,” states OnlyArt. “Angelou’s poetry is known for its powerful imagery and use of rhythm, and she is often cited as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. Her influence on literature and activism has inspired countless writers and activists around the world.”

"Maya Angelou: The Complete Poetry"
“Maya Angelou: The Complete Poetry”

Her first poetry work dates from her childhood, during which she used literature as a healing tool,” writes Superprof. “Her first volume of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, published in 1971, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.”

GoStudent states that she is “One of the most famous black female poets of all time.” It continues, “Not just a poet, she was also a memoirist, civil rights activist, screenwriter and director during her 50-year career, all of which led to her receiving dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees. … Angelou was also a prolific and widely-read poet, and her poetry has often been lauded more for its depictions of Black beauty, the strength of women and demanding social justice for all than for its poetic virtue. Still popular and resonant today, her poems have been called the ‘anthems of African Americans.’”

5. Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)

This English female poet gained international fame for her work even in her lifetime, and her poem “How do I love thee?” is one of the most popular in the English language. She is known to have influenced other famous poets, namely Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe.

"The Collected Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning"
“The Collected Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning”

Elizabeth Barrett began writing poetry from around the age of six,” notes Leonardo Newtonic. “The collection of her poems which she wrote at a young age is one of the largest extant collections of literary work by any young English writer.”

“Arguably one of the most highly regarded poets of the nineteenth century, Browning’s literary reputation eclipsed her husband Robert Browning’s,” gushes Read Poetry.

“The English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning was well-known in the United States and Britain during her lifetime,” says Spoila Mag. “Browning’s literary reputation far exceeded that of her husband, making her one of the very best poets of the nineteenth century, with many people anticipating her poetry lesson.”

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