#ReadWomen2014: From milkmaid to rebel poet

Ann Yearsley

“Ann Yearsley (1756–1806) wrote as ‘Lactilla’ because she was a milkmaid. … Taken up as a working-class prodigy by Hannah More (whose table provided scraps for her pigs), she went from poverty to overnight literary stardom, her first book attracting over a thousand subscribers including seven duchesses, sixteen countesses, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Horace Walpole, and most of the bluestockings. Her poems challenge military aggression, identify with the oppressed, and advocate rebellion.”

I love it—a milkmaid writing poetry that outsells all the elite writers of her time, knocks the socks off countesses (do countesses wear socks?), AND speaks truth to power!  She looks pretty sly too, right?

One of Yearsley’s long poems tells the agonizing story of a slave burned by his master, in which she calls “shame, shame/Upon the followers of Jesus!” who perpetrate or stand by and watch the horrific act. She lived in the slave port of Bristol, which made it even more risky to be so outspoken. She fought with her patron over the money coming in from her book sales, and after the first book, she kept full control of her literary career, publishing two more books of poems, a play, and a novel, and eventually opening a library.

It’s just one of the many gems in this hefty, impressive book:

Poetry_of_Witness_jacket_30057_0TitlePoetry of Witness: The Tradition in English 1500-2001 (ed. Carolyn Forché and Duncan Wu).

Recommended for: Aspiring rebel writers in need of inspiring role models. Poets who want to examine how formal poetry can hold anti-establishment ideas. Anyone who wants to see the past five centuries through the eyes of English-language poets. Teachers of American and British history and literature; you could get a whole year’s worth of lessons from this anthology, I think, since it covers all of the major wars and civil unrests, and includes the classics (Milton, Whitman, Dickinson) alongside lesser known treasures.

Why: Gorgeous poems that provide insight and passion at key historical moments. Great context that makes the poems easy to approach. Well-curated selections from poets whose work I never would have known otherwise.

Hey, what’s #ReadWomen2014?

In response to lots of disheartening statistics about the gender gap in literary publishing, zillions of people are posting their favorite women writers on Twitter.  I love getting so many great recommendations of what to read, so I’m joining the fun! You don’t have to have a Twitter account to browse what people are posting at the “year-long celebration of women’s writing.” 

Logo of #ReadWomen2014 with five women authors

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