Maths is not a skill I necessarily expected to be using almost daily during my DPhil thesis on poetry. Yet, more and more I’m having to scribble sums since feminist literary criticism rather likes to use ratios and fractions to demonstrate the poor esteem women’s poetry is held in.
I first noticed this trend where it is made very explicit in Eva Salzman’s ‘Introduction’ to the Women’s Work (2008) anthology:
‘Here are some of the figures, mostly from volumes published in the enlightened post-1960s: Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse ed. Kenneth Allott – 5 women/90 men; New Penguin Book of English Verse ed. Paul Keegan – 16 women/81 men; British Poetry Since 1945 ed. Edward Lucie-Smith – 7 women/37 men […] Ad nauseum. I could bore us all to kingdom come.’ (p. 9)
There are other examples, but Salzman’s is the best because it is so withering.
‘In the UK, any glaring gender imbalance is typically explained away as a ‘coincidence’ here, an ‘accident’ there. In that case, one should send for the doctors. If the selection criteria are in fact gender-blind, based on quality alone, this implied opinion of women’s writing is an offence demanding a response.’ (p. 7)
Crunching the figures for anthologies of Northern Irish poetry (which is very time consuming for a few digits in the final chapter) shows a similar lack. One woman to 26 men (Poets from the North of Ireland), six women to 62 men (A Rage for Order), 4000 pages and scant acknowledgment of any women (The Field Day Anthology, vols. 1-3).
Combine this with many high profile women poets such as Sheenagh Pugh declaring that they do not wish to be involved in the ‘ghetto-ising’ publication of women’s only anthologies – and the result is that very few women will ever appear in anthologies.