Poetry is a strange corner of the literary world. When we’re not wringing our hands about whether poetry is dead, dying, or undead, we’re coming up with elaborate but poorly-thought-out ways of quantifying its importance in contemporary society. This week’s contribution to the latter is a strange entry on Huffington Post’s “The Blog” in which one Jonathan Hobratsch gives a teaser of his personal ranking of the top 100 contemporary poets.
The rankings are a head-scratcher from the start: his list of “Top 10 Contemporary Poets” comprises eleven individuals, ranked from number one to number eight. Arithmetical concerns aside, if this teaser list is any indication of what the “Top 100” will look like, it will be a predominantly older, white, and male list. The “Top 10” is followed by a mystifying category called “Top 10 MFA graduates.” Hobrastsch provides no explanation of just what it takes to become a top MFA graduate, though he does treat us to such enlivening prose as the following sentence: “This is with bypassing further Iowans.”
However well meaning Hobratsch and his spreadsheet may be, his portrait of contemporary poetry is rife with problems, from basic factual errors (he claims that no contemporary poet has won the Nobel, forgetting Tomas Tranströmer’s win in 2011) to a method of selecting notable awards that seems better suited to a build-your-own sundae bar than a serious look at the literary landscape; he ignores such honors as state poet laureateships, Pushcart Prizes, The Lambda Awards, the Yale Younger Poets Series, MacArthur Fellowships, Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowships, Guggenheim Fellowships, and NEA grants, among other honors that most writers could agree are, to put it plainly, a pretty big deal. The inclusion of any one of the above categories would also, I’d like to point out, significantly alter the proportion of women writers, young writers, writers of color, and gay and lesbian writers included in the “top.” Furthermore, Hobratsch seems unaware or unconcerned by the fact that many major awards, such as the National Book Awards, carry a significant financial burden that must be met by the winning poet’s publisher. These burdens include large, mandatory contributions toward the NBA’s publicity campaign. The costly fine print involved in the NBA, among many other awards, keeps a significant number of poetry publishers from even submitting worthy authors for recognition.
Even after setting these problematic considerations aside, perhaps the most telling feature of this blog item is a question (an arrestingly phrased one at that) that Hobratsch puts forth with apparent seriousness: “How does one read all the books to make an accurate judgment?”
How indeed? How does a contest judge get past all of that pesky poetry? How do we make our way though all of those blasted poems so that we can get on with the important business of ranking them?
Surely this can’t be what we’ve come to as readers. Has categorization and ranking truly become more important than the written word? It’s no wonder that young poets, poets without terminal degrees, or poets who in any way fall outside the demographic of the white male feel doomed before they even begin to publish. If readers can’t be bothered to spend time with the works of those on the “top,” is there any cultural space for the rest of us?
We at Tahoma aren’t buying into the business of rankings. We believe that poetry exists to do good in the world, not to somehow crush others under its weight. We believe in publishing a diverse group of writers, of showcasing new voices while championing established ones. We will gladly and enthusiastically nominate our writers for the recognition we believe they deserve, but we believe that the poetry our contributors have shared with us—and with you—is a gift in and of itself.