An active, diverse reception matters.
Sometimes that reception builds over time with word-of-mouth praises for public performances. "Have you ever seen Nikki Giovanni live? She's a trip. You gotta see her." Or, "Man, Baraka is something. His performances are all over youtube."
Then too, the reception is associated with literary awards. Nikki Finney and more recently Tracy K. Smith won major poetry awards, and shortly thereafter, as Finney noted, "everything" changed. Their circle of readers and admirers grew and grew by leaps and bounds.
Other times, the reception is linked to reviews and commentary. Consider the coverage of Kevin Young's volume Ardency or all the scholarly writings about Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks. The reception can also be linked to endorsements from powerful figures. Maya Angelou's books have not been labeled Oprah Book Club selections; however, Winfrey's continuous and adoring praise of Angelou on her television show helped elevate Angelou--already quite popular--to even new heights.
Anthology editors are often vital to the long-term reception of poets and editors. Anthologists rarely exclude Brooks, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Robert Hayden, and Langston Hughes when compiling a comprehensive collection. The accumulated anthology selection process contribute in major ways to shaping a poet's place in literary history.
Often, the difference between a popular poet and less popular one is a matter of reception. Quality of writing is not always the determining factor. Indeed, far too many talented poets go unnoticed. There are always other factors, including institutional support, time advantages, and an active, diverse reception, that can raise a poet's popularity.
• Why are some poets more popular than others?