It has become something of a commonplace in critical surveys of poetry by women to announce the heterogeneity, complexity and richness of the field. Robyn Bolam's 2005 anthology, Eliza's Babes: Four Centuries of Women's Poetry in English, for example, 'brings together as wide a variety of female voices as possible to give readers a better understanding of the range and diversity of poetry in English through these centuries'.1 Jane Dowson notes, with reference to her 1996 anthology, Women's Poetry in the 1930s, that 'editors of anthologies of women's poetry, myself included […] tend to claim “diversity” as the outstanding feature of their contents'.2 However, Dowson proceeds to recognise the need to define and classify the object of study in order to make any meaningful assessment of it. This is a view with which I concur; it is important to nuance or qualify any claim to diversity.
If poetry by women is disparate and heterogeneous, on what grounds do we study it as a distinct strand within the larger poetic genre? More pressingly, perhaps, how would we justify the focus of a book such as this Edinburgh Critical Guide? In other words, if all that can be said about poetry by women is that it is various, why do students study it, publishers publish it and critics write about it as a coherent body of work? It is difficult, on the one hand, to claim diversity as one of the hallmarks of women's poetry and, on the other, to point to some kind of homogeneity or sameness as its characteristic feature. If we make the former claim, it proves almost