My attempt to find the ‘best’ poets in Britain over the last five years, or at least the ones who’ve been winning the awards and getting published in the big magazines.
Brief explanation for readers who’d rather chew through their keyboard than have anything to do with football: The Championship is the league directly below the Premier League (the poetic equivalent of which will be published soon), and contains the teams ranked 21st to 44th. Here are the corresponding poets:
Bearing Neil Astley’s comments about the ‘boys in the club’ in mind, it’s worth noting that 10 of the 26 poets in the ‘Poetry Championship’ are women. In other words, there is a slight bias in favour of male poets, but they’re hardly swallowing up all the available review space. In fact, the poet who has taken up the most space in Poetry Review since 2007 is, believe it or not, Wendy Cope, who has been reviewed three times over that period. Derek Mahon is the only other poet to have appeared in the review section on three separate occasions, but he has been ignored by all three of the major awards and ended up finishing just outside the top 44.
Wendy Cope is one of a fairly small group of poets to have been published by all three leading magazines (Poetry Review, Poetry London and PN Review) since 2007 — others include CK Williams (one of the highest-ranked American poets in the table, at equal 21st), Hugo Williams (no relation!), Ian Pindar and Elaine Feinstein. Feinstein, perhaps best known for her translations of Marina Tsvetaeva and her biography of Anna Akhmatova, was the most published poet across all three magazines during the last five years, appearing three times in Poetry Review, three times in PN Review and once in Poetry London.
If anyone in the poetry world is ignoring women, it seems to be the judges of the major awards rather than the editors of the major magazines. The Forward Prize for Best Collection hasn’t been won by a woman since 2004 (Kathleen Jamie for The Tree House), and the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem has been given to a woman twice in the last ten years, with Julia Copus and Alice Oswald the recipients. Meanwhile, Jen Hadfield (equal 24th on this table) is the only woman to have won the T. S. Eliot Prize in the last six years.
So how about naming and shaming these ‘sexist’ judges? Ruth Padel (2010) and Frieda Hughes (2008) have Chaired the Forward judging panel in recent years; the panel for 2011 was Chaired by Andrew Motion (a man, as many astute readers will already have noted), but included three women — Antonia Fraser, Leonie Rushforth and Fiona Sampson. They caused a minor scandal by choosing an all-male shortlist. As for the T.S. Eliot Prize, the judges last year were Chaired by Gillian Clarke, and Anne Stevenson was the Chair in 2010.
Clearly, this isn’t a clear-cut case of white male juries discriminating against female poets. I’d suggest the absence of non-white poets from the shortlists is perhaps a bigger problem: of the 26 poets in the Championship table (I’m keeping the identity of the 20 in the Premiership secret for now), I think I’m right in saying that 23 are white. The highest-ranked black poet is Derek Walcott, but a ranking of equal 24th seems shockingly low for a Nobel Laureate. Why doesn’t Walcott’s profile match the profile of Seamus Heaney, another Nobel-winning poet?
Let me offer an innocent (perhaps naive?) explanation: aside from a Selected Poems in 2007, Walcott has only published two new collections since the millennium. My table rewards poets who publish more frequently: understandably, more collections mean more review space and more prizes, and Walcott simply isn’t as prolific as Heaney, who has brought out three new collections and a series of translations since Electric Light in 2001.
Other than Walcott, the ‘big names’ languishing just outside the top 20 include Simon Armitage, one of the favourites to succeed Carol Ann Duffy as Laureate. Surprisingly, Armitage has been almost completely overlooked by the awards panels: Seeing Stars was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2010, but was overlooked by both the Forward judges and the Costa judges. He has also been reluctant to publish work in magazines — his reputation is already high enough without the ego boost of appearing in Poetry Review. Had I been able to take sales and festival appearances into account, I’m sure Armitage would have been ranked far higher.
Oxford Professor of Poetry Geoffrey Hill is down at equal 44th, but I don’t think that will come as an enormous surprise to many. Hill enjoys positioning himself as an outsider, and has been largely ignored by the awards panels.
Finally, the ‘Championship’ contains a number of up-and-coming poets who are likely to be in contention for the main awards in future years. Julia Copus won the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem in 2010 and could add to that with her next collection, while Ahren Warner has been given space in all three of the magazines and is, I think, the first member of the ‘Voice Recognition’ generation to make a significant impact on the awards shortlists. Last week, Allison McVety won the National Poetry Competition for 2011, which was enough to propel her up to equal 39th, and it’s quite possible she’ll build on that success and become a fully-fledged member of Astley’s ‘poetry mafia’ before long…
Coming next: The Premiership –Britain’s top 20 poets.