Deborah Mitchell

Sacred Cows

The Penguin Book of Women Poets


Penguin 399pp £2.50 order from our bookshop

A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now


Schocken Books 612pp £13.95 order from our bookshop

The Orchard Upstairs


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.

Sign Up to our newsletter

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

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • Why did the 'bold and determined' Empress Matilda never manage to become Queen regnant? Peter Marshall reviews a n… ,
    • From the Archive: Martyn Bedford on Ian McEwan's 'Atonement' ,
    • In 'Silenced Voices' reports the ongoing story of the human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has been… ,
    • The mystery of Jack the Ripper's identity has long been agonised over. But what do we know about his victims?… ,
    • A piece of Literary Review history from way back in 1983: John Haffenden talks to the great Iris Murdoch. ,
    • Britain’s only travelling lit fest, the Garden Museum Literary Festival is heading to Houghton Hall, Norfolk, for a… ,
    • 'The 19th-century German sage is not my idea of a pleasant travel companion' goes hiking with Friedr… ,