Warsan Shire’s Lesson ‘For Women Who Are “Difficult” to Love’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Like most poems, “For Women Who Are ‘Difficult’ to Love” is best read aloud. There’s audio floating around online of the poet, Warsan Shire, reciting it in a near-whisper, as if she recorded it in a shared space and didn’t want the person in the next room to overhear. It works. It makes it intimate. I revisit the audio every once in awhile, and each time I get the feeling that she’s speaking to me directly, giving me advice, perhaps a warning:

you can’t make homes out of human beings
someone should have already told you that
and if he wants to leave
then let him leave

In what seems like a deeply personal poem, Shire recounts a failed relationship in the second person. She tells us about the man who couldn’t love her, who compared her to endless cumbersome objects: highways, horses, anything but a woman. Her intensity frightened him and so she tried being “softer,” “less volatile,” tried to fit into the image of the woman he was searching for. That part of the poem by itself is relatable: Having someone tell you that your feelings are holding you back—from working, thinking straight, being responsible, making a good argument, being worthy of love—is one of the greatest pains of being a woman. So you tweak yourself in the most miniscule ways possible in order to seem less demanding and less passionate. You speak more quietly. You smile more. You soften your requests with words like “just” and “only.” You take up as little space as possible.

When I first heard the poem at 21 years old, I was just becoming familiar with that pain—still figuring out that a woman like me, teeming with emotion, is often not well received. When I listened to Shire speak to me through tinny plastic headphones as I sat in bed, awake in the middle of the night in the room I grew up in, a novel idea came to me: What if it isn’t me that’s failing at love? What if it’s them? I clung to the poem like gospel. It kept me from staring down an eternity of solitude, just me alone with my big feelings.

Women who love fiercely run the risk of being painted as monsters—crazy and stubborn and “too” something. Too “difficult.” This poem is a message to those women. After each excruciating heartbreak, I come back to it, using it to remind myself that perhaps, despite what I’m told, the issue isn’t me:

you are terrifying
and strange and beautiful
something not everyone knows how to love.