Browsing back issues of Poetry Review (as you do on an overcast Wednesday morning when you’re supposed to be job hunting), I found an article which attempted to rank poets in four divisions, based on the old football league system. Even in poetry, which should defy qualitative analysis, there’s a natural inclination to find out who’s best. Last year, Blake Morrison began an article on Jonathan Franzen with this anecdote:
“It’s scary,” the poet John Berryman said to the friend who’d just informed him of the death of Robert Frost, “Who’s number one? Who’s number one? Cal is number one, isn’t he?” Cal was Robert Lowell, generally considered to be a better poet than Berryman, though the hoped-for answer was “No, John, it’s you.”
Who’s number one in Britain today? If we resurrected the Poetry Review league tables, which poets could justifiably claim to be in the Premier League? The dull answer would be that it’s impossible to tell, but this blog doesn’t do dull answers (well, not today)…
So how do you even begin to rank poets? My first thought was to look at who was winning the awards. The three major poetry awards in Britain seem to be the Forward Prize, the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Costa, but each of those prizes attracts a relatively small number of entries. Would it be fairer to rank ‘the best’ based on the National Poetry Competition, which judges all entries anonymously (eliminating any accusations of favouritism)? Eventually, I decided to include results from all those competitions, hoping to widen the field out as far as possible.
Could it be extended still further? There’s the Queen’s Gold Medal -undeniably a prestigious award, although it’s only handed out sporadically – and the Eric Gregory Awards, which recognise emerging writers. I decided to take both awards into consideration, albeit with a lower points weighting than the ‘bigger’ competitions.
Next, I turned my attention to anthologies, always an interesting barometer of trends in the poetry world. The major new anthology of the last five years was Roddy Lumsden’s Identity Parade, but it also seemed worthwhile to consider smaller anthologies such as Clare Pollard and James Byrne’s Voice Recognition (again, at a lower weighting). Finally, I circled back to Poetry Review and had a look at which poets have been featured most regularly over the last five years, before spending an extremely dull couple of hours (don’t try this at home) collecting the data into a table.
The results will be posted here as soon as I’ve typed them out, beginning with the poetry ‘Championship’ and continuing with the ‘Premiership’. I can’t hope to provide a genuine answer to the question of who the top poet is, but the table does highlight some interesting trends: the people sweeping up the prizes aren’t necessarily the people you’d expect to be sweeping up the prizes.
More to follow soon…
A word on the results:
Results include some non-British poets (e.g. Sharon Olds, who was nominated for the Forward Prize in 2009), but should be regarded as an indication of which poets are highly regarded in Britain today.
The results are an indication of what’s been happening since 2005, and are biased towards poets who have published collections since then (for obvious reasons). Prolific poets tend to be nominated for more prizes, but it should be remembered that output isn’t necessarily an indication of quality.
The points system is slightly arbitrary, but I think most people would agree that a Forward Prize is ‘worth more’ than an Eric Gregory Award. How much more is, of course, open to debate.
If poetry were football, Seamus Heaney would not be Manchester United.
Summary of data taken into account: Forward Prize winners and shortlisted poets (Best Collection, Best First Collection, Best Poem); T.S. Eliot Prize winners and shortlisted poets; Costa Poetry Award winners and shortlisted poets; Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry winners; National Poetry Competition winners and runners-up; Identity Parade poets; Voice Recognition poets; poets featured in Poetry Review since Spring 2005; poets reviewed in Poetry Review since Spring 2005.
*All are weighted differently, from 80 points for an overall win in the Costa Book Awards down to 5 points for a poem which has appeared in Poetry Review since 2005.