Deborah Mitchell

Sacred Cows

The Penguin Book of Women Poets

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Penguin 399pp £2.50 order from our bookshop

A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now

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Schocken Books 612pp £13.95 order from our bookshop

The Orchard Upstairs

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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.

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