The Penguin Book of Women Poets by Carol Cosman, Joan Keefe & Kathleen Weaver eds; A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now by Aliki Barnstone & Willis Barnstone eds; The Orchard Upstairs by Penelope Shuttle - review by Deborah Mitchell

Deborah Mitchell

Sacred Cows

The Penguin Book of Women Poets

By

Penguin 399pp £2.50 order from our bookshop

A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now

By

Schocken Books 612pp £13.95 order from our bookshop

The Orchard Upstairs

By

Oxford University Press 52pp £3.95 order from our bookshop
 

There is a respectable quantity of accredited poetry by women - respectable, that is, compared with other art forms - and it is striking that these two anthologies, though they obviously overlap in major areas, do not, overall, contain the same work. Women have always composed poetry - the first identified writer in the world was a woman, a Sumerian moon-priestess - and yet it is difficult to identify a corpus of women's poetry. Most of the work in these two collections is written by minor poets of discrete literary traditions; for it is a sad fact that although there is good poetry in them the majority of it is mediocre and much is downright bad. As far as I can discover there have been only two really great women poets in the whole of history: Emily Dickinson is one, and Sappho, whose verse shines through even the most tepid translation (of which there is plenty in these anthologies) is the other - although the twentieth century does seem to be producing some fine poets: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop (not represented in either book), Sylvia Plath, Tsvetaeva and Akhmatova, to name but a few.But if there is no clearly definable body of work, there are certainly characteristics which are peculiar to women's poetry. Women poets, much more than women novelists, are subject to the narcissism Simone de Beauvoir has described so well in The Second Sex:

women, not being able to fulfil

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter