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).
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.
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.
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 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:
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.