BOOK REVIEW: A Book Of Women Poets: From Antiquity To Now ed. by Aliki Barnstone & Willis Barnstone

I got this book when I was in college.  I studied English, with a concentration in Creative Writing.  So, I read & wrote a lot of poetry.

I honestly don’t remember which class assigned this book, but I know we didn’t read much of it.  The wide reach of this book looked so appealing, I had to stick it on my shelf to read later.

It only took me about 10 years to get around to reading it!

I don’t think you can spoil a poetry book.  Let me know if I’m wrong.

In some ways, this book lived up to my high expectations.  In other ways, it failed miserably.

First, it seems important to explain how Aliki Barnstone & Willis Barnstone chose to divide the sections.  They divide the major sections into different languages, then they break them up into subsections by countries that speak the language.

For example, the Barnstones divided the “ARABIC” section into “Iraq,” “Arabia,” & “Morocco & Northwest Africa.”

The only divergence from this pattern?  The largest section, English.  It’s all lumped into “England, United States, Canada, Australia.”

You’re telling me the Barnstones couldn’t make up separate subsections for those four countries??

Really, I think the editors made me dislike this book as much as I did. 

I’m not saying this wasn’t a massive undertaking, requiring multiple language translations, careful choices, arrangements, & fact-checking for introductions to hundreds of poets.  It really was epic when you think about it.

But, some issues arose for me:

  • The editors’ introductions to several authors had typos, incomplete sentences, & were poorly written.  It made them very confusing.
  • The lumping together of the English poets, which appeared at the end of the book.  It’s like they were very careful with other languages & countries, but then they got tired & said, “Ah, screw it.”
  • They assumed some of the Anonymous authors were female because of the voice or the poem’s subject matter.  It’s true most authors write in their own gender’s voice, but it’s possible a man wrote in a female’s voice. 
  • They also attributed a lot of folk & oral songs to female authors.  Basically, if it had to do with family, caring for children, or loving a man, the editors claimed a woman wrote it.  That irritated me – men can do all those things too.

The parts of the book that, for the most part, made it tolerable was – of course – the poetry.  Some of the quotations & anecdotes the editors relayed about the authors also touched me.

Here are some of my favorites:

  • “Parturition” by Mina Loy – “Pain is no stronger than the resisting force / Pain calls up in me / The struggle is [equal.]” pg. 507
  • “Letters of the Unliving” by Mina Loy – “Agony / ends in an equal grave / with ecstasy.” pg. 517
  • Elizabeth Bishop[editors’ introduction, …] – “In her lifetime Bishop never allowed her poems to be published in women’s anthologies precisely, she reckoned, because of ‘feminist principles.’  She wrote: ‘Undoubtedly gender does play an important part in the making of any art, but art is art and to separate writings, paintings, musical compositions, etc., into two sexes is to emphasize values in them that are not art.’” pg. 573
    • Anyone else see the irony of including this quotation in a book of Women Poets?
  • Denise Levertov [editors introduction, …] – “In the essay ‘The Nature of Poetry’ she writes: […] In our time, a political poetry untinged with anguish… is unimaginable.  Yet – because it creates autonomous structures that are imbued with life and which stir the life of those who experience them – poetry is, in process and in being, intrinsically affirmative.” pg. 627
  • Carolyn Kizer [editors’ introduction, …] – “Of her feminist stance, Kizer writes: [‘] I am a premature Women’s Liberationist.  I was writing poems on the subject ten years before it became fashionable, and a great many people, then, didn’t understand what the hell the fuss was about.’” pg. 632
  • Audre Lorde [editors introduction, …] – “Lorde has said, ‘When I say myself, I mean not only the Audre who inhabits my body but all those feisty, incorrigible black women who insist on standing up and saying, ‘I am and you cannot wipe me out no matter how irritating I am, how much you fear what I might represent.’’  In her essay ‘The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,’ Lorde writes that she is ‘a black woman warrior poet doing my work.’  Her work is the reclamation of ‘language which has been made to work against us.’  Her words ‘bridge some of the differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence.’” pgs. 666-667

Final Score:

3 out of 5 stars!  The poetry only bumped up my score a little bit.  I found the editorial choices so frustrating!  In a second edition of a book, I would think that they would have ironed out these little kinks.


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