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On Poetry Awards: Figures and Questions

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I write this blog to encourage discussion among poets regarding poetry awards. To do this, I will begin with showing some figures on the awards, along with some observations. Finally, I'll end by posing 10 questions.

The numbers below come from a MS Excel database that I have created. I have noted every contemporary poet (a poet living at least a day in the 21st century) that has won at least one of 30 major poetry awards. I will list these 30 awards at the bottom of this blog. The full list of "Top 100 Poets" will appear in the forthcoming Fall issue of The Literati Quarterly. Finally, I'd like to assuage the critics that have read up to this point by making an obvious statement: poetry awards are not an infallible index for poetic greatness. Many writers are overlooked each year.

Note: The top 100, have all won at least three of 30 major awards (At least two awards, if you include only living contemporary poets).

Top 10 Contemporary Poets w/ number of awards won

1. WS Merwin (20) (age 86)
2t. John Ashbery (13) (age 87)
2t. Charles Wright (13) (age 78, the current poet laureate)
4t. Louise Gluck (12) (age 71)
4t. Richard Wilbur (12) (age 93)
6. Philip Levine (10) (age 86)
7t. Charles Simic (9) (age 76)
7t. Frank Bidart (9) (age 75)
8t. Gallway Kinnell (8) (age 87)
8t. Robert Pinsky (8) (age 73)
8t. Gary Snyder (8) (age 84)

If alive, these contemporary poets would be in the top 10: Adrienne Rich (12), AR Ammons (11), Stanley Kunitz (11), Hayden Carruth (10).

Top 10 MFA graduates:

1. Charles Wright (13), Iowa (age 78)
2. Philip Levine (10), Iowa (age 86)
3. Yusef Komunyakaa (6), UC-Irvine (age 67)
4t. Mark Doty (5), Goddard (age 61, as of Aug 10)
4t. Rita Dove (5), Iowa (age 61)
4t. Alice Notley (5), Iowa (age 68)
4t. CD Wright (5), Arkansas (age 65)
8t. Robert Bly (4), Iowa (age 87)
8t. Brenda Hillman (4), Iowa (age 63)
8t. WD Snodgrass (4), Iowa (died in 2009)
8t. James Tate (4), Iowa (age 70)

If excluding Iowa, you can add these poets: Carolyn Forche (Bowling Green), Alice Fulton (Cornell), Rodney Jones (North Carolina), Khaled Mattawa (Indiana), Henri Cole (Columbia) and Michael Ryan (Warren Wilson) have won 3 awards. Natasha Trethewey (MA-Amherst) and Tracy K. Smith (Columbia) have two awards, with a Pulitzer giving them a boost among others with two awards. This is with bypassing further Iowans.

Youngest poets in the top 100

1. Tracy K. Smith, 42, MFA-Columbia
2. Terrance Hayes, 42, MFA-Pittsburgh
3. Natasha Trethewey, 48, MFA-MA-Amherst
4. Khaled Mattawa, 49, MFA-Indiana
5. DA Powell, 51, MFA-Iowa
6. Carl Phillips, 55, No MFA
7. Li-Young Lee, 57 (on Aug 19), No MFA
8. Richard Zenith, 58, No MFA (more of a poetry translator)
9. Henri Cole, 58, MFA-Columbia
10. Mark Doty, 61, MFA-Goddard

Here are some notable contemporary poets not included in the list above with the number of major awards won:

Billy Collins (7)
CAConrad (0)
Alfred Corn (3)
Matthea Harvey (1)
John Hollander (4)
Richard Howard (7)
Laura Kasischke (2)
Heather McHugh (2)
Thylias Moss (2)
Naomi Shihab Nye (0)
Mark Strand (6)
Franz Wright (4)
Jay Wright (4)
Matthew Zapruder (1)

Questions for established poets:

1. What is the best nomination process for an award? Should any poet be allowed to apply or should one be nominated? If nominated, should it be done by a select group?

2. Who is the last judge that has awarded a poet that they have never met? How often has a friend, a former student or a former teacher of a judge been the winner? What is the best way to protect against biases among judges?

3. Do younger poets (under 50) win less awards because they lack name recognition, have a smaller network, or is it because it must take decades for a poet to become good enough for a major award?

4. Poets rarely win an award twice or even more than one award in a year. Is this purposeful or is the field that evenly spread? If Walt Whitman had written Leaves of Grass this year, would he be held to only one or two awards?

5. Is one judge better than three? Should there be more than three judges? Do multiple judges lead to compromises in which the reluctantly agreed upon choice isn't really they best candidate available?

6. Should specific poets have access to some sort of online electoral system in which they approve a book for an award online? The book that achieves the most approval by the poetry assembly would get the award.

7. What should make a judge qualified? Should they have written at least one book of poetic criticism? Should other poets even be judges? Should there be a mix of professions--poets, critics, janitors, physicists?

8. How does one read all the book to make an accurate judgment? Should a judge be given a stipend to take an entire year off of work to read every book of poetry published in a given year?

9. MFA poets outside of the legendary Iowa program are beginning to win a large chunk of the awards. Does this reflect that MFA programs are working?

10. No contemporary poet has won the Nobel Prize. Why is this the case? If it is winnable by an American poet, who is a great candidate for this international prize?

The 30 major poetry awards considered for these figures are the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, Aiken Taylor, American Academy of Arts & Letters, Arthur Rense, Bess Hokin, Bobbitt, Bollingen, Frederick Bock, Griffin International, JF Nims Memorial, J Howard & Barbara Wood, Kingsley Tufts (excluding the discovery award), LA Times Book Prize, Landon Translation Award, Lannan, Lenore Marshall, Levinson Prize, National Book, National Book Critics Circle, PEN/Voelcker, PEN Translation, PEN Award for Poetry in Translation (somehow different than the other award), Poet Laureate, Pulitzer, Robert Frost Medal, Ruth Lilly, Shelley Memorial, Wallace Stevens, Whiting, and William Carlos Williams.