A Statistical Breakdown of Best American Poetry

Since its introduction in 1988, the Best American Poetry Series has grown in influence (and sales) to become one of the best-selling poetry anthologies in the world.  Every year, approximately 75 poems are chosen by David Lehman and a guest editor for inclusion in that year's volume.  In recent years, the inclusion of a poem in Best American Poetry (BAP) has become an important honor for the poem's author and the publication in which the poem first appeared.

In this issue of Octavo's--The Business of Lit, we look at a breakdown of the publications and poets who have been chosen in the 14 years in which BAP has been published.  This article does not address the merits of the particular poems, or that of individual volumes.   There is a growing body of criticism on that front, including articles in Boston Comment, the Christian Science Monitor, Beloit Poetry Journal and other reviews on individual volumes (Bookreporter, Poetry Daily, BookSense, Poetic Voices, Contemporary Poetry Review).


The Publications

In most volumes, the introduction by Lehman and the guest editor mentions the months that it takes to review publications and the poems within.  But, which publications?  Certainly not the smallest of the small press.  There's no evidence that any e-zines are yet taken seriously.  Unlike the Pushcarts, poems are not sponsored by individual publications (with the explicit recommendation of poets and editors of note).  How many poems get reviewed?  How many publications?

A quick review of the publications represented in BAP shows approximately 200 different journals.  Still, there are a few publications whose representation in BAP is virtually a certainty from issue to issue.  The table below breaks out publications on the basis of how many times they have published poems that end up in the "final 75."  Far and away, this list is dominated by a half-dozen of the most highly respected journals:  Poetry, The Paris Review, American Poetry Review, and Ploughshares.  The "mainstream press" is represented by The New Yorker (and to a lesser extent, The New Republic and The Atlantic Monthly).

There is no end of theories about why six or seven publications dominate the BAP.  One hypothesis is, of course, that these publications simply offer America's best poetry year after year.  Another is that the best poets submit to (or are commissioned by) the finest journals and mainstream magazines.  The most oft-heard explanation is:

BAP is a collection of the Best American Poets, not the Best American Poetry.

It's hard to believe that there isn't some truth in that statement.  As we'll see later, famous poets publish in famous places, and famous poets dominate BAP as well.

That being said, it should be noted that the table below doesn't tell the whole story.  The distribution of publications and their success rate has been changing over time.  The early volumes of BAP had many more poems selected from the books of poets -- often poems that had never previously been published (hence, the "Published By Author" category in the table).  Some publications (Iowa Review, Boulevard, Grand Street, Colorado Review) had lots of success in the mid-90's but haven't been able to maintain the same pace.  Other publications have come on strong recently (Crab Orchard Review, Southern Review).  Some small-press publications have disappeared.  In some cases, a large percentage of a publication's success came in a single year (The Yale Review had six poems represented in BAP 1998).  A desire to include more multicultural work has probably had an effect on the distribution of publications (and the poets chosen).  Lastly, some very fine journals have only begun to receive the resources to compete for "better" poets and greater exposure.

After all is said, it's still the heavy-weight publications that dominate BAP -- although a close look at the numbers leads one to believe that there's an increasing diffusion of representation across more publications as the years go by.

No. of Times
in BAP
No.  of 
1 82 Alaska Quarterly Review, Five Points, Poetry Northwest, Potomac Review, Salt Hill, Texas Review, et al.
2 35 Connecticut Review, Exquisite Corpse, Indiana Review, Raritan, Virginia Quarterly Review, et al.
3 11 Barrow Street, Boston Phoenix, Harvard Review, Ohio Review, River Styx, Tin House, Quarterly West, et al.
4 12 Agni, Beloit Poetry Journal, Black Warrior Review, Georgia Review, Epoch, Urbanus, ZYZZYVA, et al.
5 13 Boston Review, Crab Orchard Review,  Green Mountains Review, Many Mountains Moving, Prairie Schooner, et al.
6 4 Agni, Ontario Review, Seneca Review, The World
7 - 8 7 ACM, Antioch Review, Field, Hanging Loose, Hudson Review, Partisan Review, Shenandoah 
9 - 10 3 Antaeus, New England Review, Denver Quarterly
11 - 12 6 Colorado Review, Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Southwest Review, Western Humanities Review
13 -14 5 Callaloo, Threepenny Review, TriQuarterly, Grand Street, Southern Review
15 - 20 3 Boulevard, The Atlantic Monthly, The Iowa Review
21 - 23 2 The New Republic, The Yale Review
30 - 35 3 American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, The Paris Review
50 - 60 3 Poetry, The New Yorker, Published by Author

The Poets

If one were to agree with the editors of BAP, Donald Hall wrote one of the 75 best poems in America almost every year since 1988.  John Ashbery and Charles Simic aren't far behind with 10 winning poems in each of the last 14 years.  Billy Collins, the current Poet Laureate, has made it into BAP seven times -- along with 10 other renown poets.  Curiously, it often seems that what is widely considered a poet's best work isn't the poem that's picked.  It seems odd, for example, that Collins's Workshop, Marginalia, Forgetfulness and Shoveling Snow with the Buddha were all passed over but Snow Day made the cut.  I have heard similar complaints from fellow poets about other authors' chosen work -- from Mary Jo Bang to Jorie Graham.

Approximately 20 poets account for 15% of all the poems ever published in BAP -- representing over 160 poems of the approximately 1,050 poems in the series.  There is no question that these are some of the finest poets of our (and the prior) generation.  Still, considering the sheer number of poets in the United States and the astounding amount of good (and even more amazing amount of bad) poetry in the nation, it's difficult to come to the conclusion that BAP is a model of meritocracy.  Like all other books (and particularly series), BAP is published to make money.  "Name" poets are probably an indispensable part of the formula.

# of Times
in BAP
How Many
1 374 Bang, Dove,  Merrill, Forche, Milosz, Updike et al.
2 103 Ginsberg, Heaney, Ignatow, Kunitz, Padgett, Peacock et al. 
3 39 Glaser, Hacker, Kenyon, Lux, Snyder et al.
4 23 Bly, Kinnell, Gluck, Hass, Levertov, Olds et al.
5 19 Hecht, Levine, Oliver, Phillips, Rich, Walcott et al.
6 8 Ammons, Justice,  Grossman, Gunn, Wright (Charles), Merrill, Merwin, Strand
7 11 Collins, Creeley, Kizer, Koch, Komunyakaa, Graham, Howard, Palmer, Pinsky,  Tate, Wilbur
8 1 John Hollander
10 2 John Ashbery, Charles Simic
11 1 Donald Hall

If one stares at the numbers long enough, one finds the occasional oddity:  Rita Dove was guest editor in 2000, but has only been featured in BAP once;  Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney has only made it into BAP twice;  John Ashbery apparently picked himself in 1988.  It's certainly true that some poets write better books than single poems, and that may account for the low "BAP count" for poets such as Gerald Stern or Carl Dennis.  

Generally, though, one can expect the Same Famous Poets year after year.  Even as the number of creative writing programs has bloomed into the hundreds, and the number of fine younger poets made their genius evident, BAP appears to have a built-in bias toward the poets of the mid-to-late 20th century.

Any notion to the contrary is quickly dispelled by analyzing the table which follows.  The range of poets' ages in any given BAP is rather extraordinary -- vis a vis the range of ages in almost any other profession.  The oldest poets in BAP are quite often between 80 and 90.  The median ages of the poets represented are often in the 50's -- which means half of the 75 poets in a give issue are between 50 and 80-something.  The range of ages between BAP's is also interesting:  witness the 10-to-15-year difference in median ages between the volumes guest-edited by Ashbery, Strand, Ammons and Rich -- and those edited by Bly, Hollander and Hass.  It has been suggested elsewhere that these differences are examples that some editors appreciate new voices and some tend to stick with mature poets. 

BAP Year Oldest
Guest Editor
1988 83 20 46 John Ashbery
1989 75 21 48 Donald Hall
1990 74 18 47 Jorie Graham
1991 83 26 45 Mark Strand
1992 81 21 47 Charles Simic
1993 92 24 51 Louise Glück
1994 81 26 44 A.R. Ammons
1995 75 27 47 Richard Howard
1996 91 19 44 Adrienne Rich
1997 74 27 49 James Tate
1998 77 31 55 John Hollander
1999 91 32 59 Robert Bly
2000 90 28 49 Rita Dove
2001 90 27 55 Robert Hass

BAP vs. Other Poetic Distinctions

Does BAP, in fact, publish the best American poets?   Given the number of prizes accumulated by BAP regulars, it would certainly seem so.  The table below lists all the poets who have won a major poetry prize in the last 20 to 25 years.  Here's a short description of each prize:

The Bollingen Prize is administered by Yale University and the Bollingen Foundation and the honor is awarded every two years to an American poet for the best book published during the previous two years by a poet with a lifetime achievement in poetry.  The current award is $50,000. 

The Ruth Lilly Prize is for lifetime achievement in poetry.  It is administered by the Modern Poetry Association (Poetry) and the current award is $100,000.

The Tanning Prize is a $100,000 award for "outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry."  It has been "adopted" by the Academy of American Poets and renamed the "Wallace Stevens Award" and the prize amount raised to $150,000.

The Pulitzer Prize for Poetry is awarded yearly to what is judged the best poetry book that year.  The award is $7,500 but it is considered highly prestigious and is thought to contribute substantially to a poet's career (not to mention book sales).

Author Age Recent
Born Died Times In BAP Bollingen Ruth Lilly Pulitzer Tanning/
Wallace Stevens
Ammons, A. R. Deceased 2000 1926 2001 6 1975 1995 1998  
Ashbery, John 75 2001 1927 10 1985 1992 1976 2001
Bidart, Frank 63 1998 1939   1       2000
Bowers, Edgar Deceased None 1924 2000 None 1989
Carruth, Hayden 81 1999 1921   3   1990    
Chappell, Fred 66 None 1936 None 1985
Creeley, Robert 76 2001 1926   7 1999      
Dennis, Carl 63 1997 1939 3 2000 2002
Dove, Rita 50 1989 1952   1     1987  
Dunn, Stephen 63 1993 1939 4 2001
Gluck, Louise 59 2001 1943   4 2001   1993  
Graham, Jorie 52 2001 1950 7 1996
Hall, Donald 74 2001 1928   11   1994    
Hecht, Anthony 79 2001 1923 5 1983 1988
Hollander, John 73 2001 1929   8 1983      
Howard, Richard 73 2001 1929 7 1970
Ignatow, David Deceased 1999 1914 1997 2 1977      
Jackson, Laura Deceased None 1901 1991 None 1991
Justice, Donald 77 2000 1925   6 1991   1980  
Kinnell, Galway 75 2001 1927 4 1983
Kizer, Carolyn 77 2001 1925   7     1985  
Koch, Kenneth 77 2001 1925 7 1995
Komunyakaa, Yusef 55 2001 1947   7   2001 1994  
Kumin, Maxine 77 1995 1925 2 1999 1973
Kunitz, Stanley 97 1996 1905   2 1987      
Levine, Philip 74 1999 1928 5 1987 1995
Low, Jackson Mac 80 None 1922   None       1999
Matthews, William Deceased 1999 1942 1997 2 1997
Merrill, James Deceased 1996 1926 1995 6     1977  
Merwin, W. S. 75 2000 1927 6 1979 1998 1971 1997
Mueller, Lisel 78 None 1924   None   2002 1997  
Nemerov, Howard Deceased None 1920 1991 None 1981 1978
Oliver, Mary 67 2000 1935   5     1984  
Plath, Sylvia Deceased None 1932 1963 None 1982
Rich, Adrienne 73 2001 1929   5   1986   1996
Schuyler, James Deceased 2001 1923 1991 3 1981
Simic, Charles 64 2001 1938   10     1990  
Snyder, Gary 72 1993 1930 3 1997 1975
Stern, Gerald 77 1993 1925   2   1996    
Strand, Mark 68 1998 1934 6 1993 1999
Swenson, May Deceased 1994 1913 1989 2 1981      
Tate, James 59 2001 1943 7 1992 1995
Taylor, Henry 60 None 1942   None     1986  
Van Duyn, Mona 81 None 1921 None 1989 1991
Wagoner, David 76 1999 1926   2   1991    
Warren, Robert Penn Deceased None 1921 1989 None 1979
Wilbur, Richard 81 2000 1921   7     1989  
Wright, Charles 67 1999 1935 6 1993 1998

Is it perhaps not surprising that the "big winners" of major prizes are disproportionately represented in BAP.  Yet, there's a lot of interesting divergence between the winners of "establishment" prizes and BAP publication.   While Ashbery has garnered every major prize (10 BAPs) -- Donald Hall (11 BAPs),  Charles Simic (10 BAPs) and John Hollander (8 BAPs) have "only" won one.  Some renowned poets (Mona Van Duyn) have never been in BAP at all.  

The relationship between major awards and acceptance in BAP isn't expected to be remarkably strong.  Major awards are given for a variety of reasons (service to the poetry community, contributions in translation, consistent quality).  Major awards (other than the Pulitzer) tend to emphasize "lifetime achievements" and tend to come near the end of a poet's career productivity.  For better or worse, this fact makes it all the more remarkable that these poets' current works are still considered among the best in the nation, year after year.

  Jeffery Bahr