An anthology of women poets from 43 centuries and 70 cultures; Women Poets of the World, edited by Joanna Bankier and Deirdre Lashgari. New York: Macmillan. 442 pp. $11.95. Paperback.
Why, we might ask, should there be anthologies of ''women poets'' when there are none of ''men poets''? Doesn't this suggest that there is something remarkable - not to say peculiar - about a woman who writes poetry, rather as Dr. Johnson thought it remarkable that a woman might preach, a prospect he compared with a ''dog walking on his hinder legs ... not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all''?
But the reason we have no anthologies of ''men poets'' is because most anthologies of poetry have been cheerfully and unself-consciously filled with the writings of men, often to the exclusion of women. In their introduction to this collection, editors Bankier and Lashgari discuss the various constraints that have served to make the woman poet an exception to general expectation.
Throughout much of history, in most cultures, women have been relegated to the private sphere of societies, while men played the public roles. Like that most famous of hermetic poets, Emily Dickinson, many women poets often wrote only for themselves or for a limited circle.
Working in literary traditions that, for the most part, mirrored male experience, women found it difficult to validate their own perceptions. This predicament, at any rate, is the argument of feminists like Elaine Showalter and Tillie Olsen. But not all male writers present a distorted picture of women. And it could also be argued that the lack of validation might have served as a spur to any poet working in a tradition that valued originality. Women, in fact, often pioneered modes of poetry and fiction by working in areas such as the prose novel and the lyric poem, which were at first considered beneath the dignity of a male writer. As soon as these genres grew more prestigious, however , men would begin working in them, more or less displacing women.
But perhaps the chief impression we are left with is not that women wrote little, but that little of what they wrote was preserved and canonized. When we consider the complicated process by which editors, critics, scholars, poets, and ordinary readers of subsequent generations gradually sift out what is to endure from what will be eclipsed or forgotten, it is hard not to agree with the editors of this collection. Such broadly diffused prejudices against women have taken a serious toll.
Drawing upon the poets of over 70 cultures from 2300 BC to the present, ''Women Poets of the World'' may be compared with Aliki and Willis Barnstone's anthology ''A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now'' (New York: Schocken, 1980). Both books call attention to a wide range of previously neglected writing. Both face the difficulties of any anthology that must rely heavily upon translating that least translatable form of discourse, poetry. Both favor providing brief selections from a variety of poets over substantial selections from the ''most important'' poets.
Bankier and Lashgari begin their collection in China and Japan, then proceed Westward around the world. The Barnstones begin in Sumero-Babylonia with Enheduanna, the poet/priestess/politician who is also the first recorded, named poet of either sex (c. 2300 BC). A brief biographical note identifies each poet in ''A Book of Women Poets.'' One misses this feature in ''Women Poets of the World,'' where, some poets are identified by no more than a name, nationality, and a single date (birth, death, when the poem was written?).
A valuable and interesting feature of Bankier and Lashgari's book, however, is the introductory material. Essays by over a dozen different authors preface each of the 16 main cultural sections. Although these essays do not always identify all of the poets in the section, they succeed in providing a sense of the cultural, political, and social contexts in which these women wrote. They help answer the question, why are there so few women poets?
But this broadly based cultural approach, so useful in tying together such a multitude of disparate voices (nuns, courtesans, housewives, priestesses, professional women of letters), tends, in some respects, to reduce the individual poet's voice to a kind of anonymity. And anonymity, more than anything else, is the fate from which this anthology, and others like it, aim to preserve a sex all too often constrained to sign its literary productions ''BY A WOMAN.''