Introducing our third attempt to find the ‘best’ poets in Britain, or at least the ones who’ve been winning awards and getting published in the major magazines…
(I’ve attempted to answer frequent, and less frequent, questions in an earlier post.)
What on earth is ‘The Championship’? (Brief introduction for readers who’d rather pluck out their own eyeballs with a coffee-drenched teaspoon than watch a game of football): The Championship is the league directly below the Premier League; hence, the Poetry Championship is directly below the Poetry Premier League, and contains the poets who just missed out on the top 20. Since the Championship has 24 teams, there should be 24 poets here. Any readers interested in the dark art of counting will observe that there are actually 25, due to the tense and action-packed race for the final spot ending in an inseparable tie.
(Click on the poet’s name to find out more. Most links lead either to the poet’s website or to the Poetry Archive, where you can hear each poet read their own work.)
The Ascent of Woman?
The balance between female and male poets here is almost exactly equal (12 women to 13 men, with sincere apologies if I’ve miscounted!), and two female poets — Wendy Cope and Selima Hill —head the list. Without giving away too many details about the top 20, there are a number of female poets ranked still higher, including major award winners Jorie Graham and Sharon Olds. Meanwhile, the National Poetry Competition was won by a female poet in both 2011 and 2012; since 2000, 8 of the 12 winners have been women.
While magazine editors and awards shortlists are frequently criticised for not featuring enough women (and it’s an undeniable fact that there was an all-male shortlist for the 2011 Forward Prize, although it should be noted that women outnumbered men on the judging panel), this survey doesn’t support the idea that there’s some sort of literary glass ceiling.
On the other hand, non-white poets are conspicuous by their near-total absence. In last year’s survey, only four non-white poets made the top 50. Of those four poets, Fred D’Aguiar (now outside the top 150) and Derek Walcott (outside the top 200) have both plummeted down this year’s rankings, while the Iranian-born Mimi Khalvati just missed out on making the Championship list. Jackie Kay made the top 50 this time, but the presence of only two non-white poets in this survey should perhaps be a matter of concern.
That said, projects such as Ten (Bloodaxe Books) have been set up specifically to promote black and Asian writers, and Bernardine Evaristo recently guest-edited Poetry Review. Walcott’s absence from the list can be easily explained by his lack of recent publications (he hasn’t been in contention for the major awards since the TS Eliot Prize-winning White Egrets, in 2010).
Ahren Warner is close to the top twenty for the second year running, and is clearly making the transition from promising new voice to a position in whatever passes for the poetry establishment. Earlier this year, he succeeded Colette Bryce as editor of Poetry London. Of the poets on Todd Swift’s YBP list, Rachael Boast has also been widely-published over the last couple of years, while Jacob Polley (54th), Jon Stone (60th) and Liz Berry (68th) were unlucky not to make the top 50 this time.
Among the major players from last year’s list to miss out this time were Robin Robertson (70th), Don Paterson (95th) and Seamus Heaney (=98th). Expect Robertson to climb the rankings next year following the recent publication of Hill of Doors. Sam Willetts, in the top twenty last time, dropped off the list completely, and it will be interesting to see how he follows his high-impact first collection, New Light for the Old Dark.
*Note on the table: where poets are level on points, the score for 2012 has been used as a tie-breaker.