Since starting this blog, I’ve been hurled off the Creative Writing MA bandwagon and crushed under the onrushing wheels of ‘the real world’, working long hours for no money at all, but — as the old saying goes — you’re never too busy to spend an afternoon on Excel fine-tuning a complex system of ranking poets based on their publications and prizes over the last five years.
From that opening sentence alone, it should be clear that this project is a work of blatant sub-sanity and will offer little in the way of objective assessment as to which poets are ‘better’ than others. I’m well aware that ranking poets is reductive and completely contrary to most of the things poetry stands for, but I have to confess to an irresistible urge to know ‘who’s number one’ (as John Berryman asked in the hours after Robert Frost’s death).
This Poetry Premier League had two main sources of inspiration: the first was an article published in an old edition of Poetry Review (pre-1992, for anyone who likes football enough to appreciate the significance of the date), which attempted to rank British poets in four divisions, based on the Football League system at the time. No reasons were offered in support of the rankings, and I wondered if I could do better…
The second source of inspiration was Neil Astley’s StAnza lecture in 2005. Discussing negative reactions to his bestselling Bloodaxe anthologies, he talked about a ‘poetry mafia’ which had ‘taken over much of the poetry review space in key papers and journals.’ The journals cited included Poetry Review and PN Review, two of the most widely-read poetry magazines in Britain… Naturally, I wanted to know whether that ‘poetry mafia’ still exists, and if it does, I wanted to know who’s in it. Astley discussed ‘the boys in the club’ and suggested being female or non-white (or, worse still, both) puts you at a serious disadvantage in the closed world of British poetry. Reading through the offending magazines more than half a decade on, would there be any evidence to back up his assertion?
Last year, I surveyed every issue of Poetry Review since 2005, as well as finding out which poets were winning the major awards (Forward Prize, T.S. Eliot Prize and Costa Prize). I don’t think many readers would disagree that a Forward Prize for Best Collection is a bigger deal than a publication in Poetry Review, so I ended up with a weighted points system to reflect which achievements I considered most significant.
This year, I decided to expand the project in an effort to produce a more accurate version of the table. I’ve included publications in Poetry London and PN Review, which should give a broader picture of who’s ‘taking over’ the magazine space. Last year’s points system suggested that an overall win in the Costa Prize was the highest summit you could reach in British poetry, but this year I remembered that being made Poet Laureate is probably more impressive and changed the system accordingly.
I also decided to include data from the last five years only. Picking up where I left off last year and including everything from 2005 onwards (the last seven years) seemed too arbitrary, and just analysing events over the past year would give me too narrow a time period, obscuring the bigger picture.
Given a little more time, a little more information, a little more energy, I might have included data on which poets are being booked for festivals, and which books are selling best. As it is, the table should be regarded as flawed and subjective, but still a reasonably accurate indication of who is the Don (or Donna) Corleone of British poetry. Place your bets now. . .
How it works
(1) I waste a lot of time looking at all major award winners and everyone who has appeared in Poetry Review, Poetry London or PN Review since 2007.
(2) I waste more time collecting the results into a table and assigning points as follows:
90 points for being made Poet Laureate.
80 points for winning the Costa Prize overall.
75 points for winning the Forward Prize for Best Collection.
75 points for winning the T.S. Eliot Prize.
70 points for winning the Costa Prize for Poetry.
60 points for winning the National Poetry Competition.
60 points for winning the Forward Prize for Best Individual Poem.
50 points for winning the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.
40 points for being a runner-up in the National Poetry Competition.
40 points for winning the Forward Prize for Best First Collection.
35 points for making the Forward Prize for Best Collection shortlist.
35 points for making the T.S. Eliot Prize shortlist.
30 points for making the Costa Prize for Poetry shortlist.
30 points for making the Forward Prize for Best Individual Poem shortlist.
30 points for third place in the National Poetry Competition.
20 points for making the Forward Prize for Best First Collection shortlist.
15 points for a review in Poetry Review.
10 points for a poem in Poetry Review.
10 points for a review in PN Review.
10 points for a review in Poetry London.
5 points for a poem in PN Review.
5 points for a poem in Poetry London.
Correct up to March 31st, 2012 (Spring 2012 issue of Poetry Review, Spring 2012 issue of Poetry London, January-Feburary edition of PN Review)