"I know I'm not sufficiently obscure
to please the critics--nor devious enough.
Imagery escapes me." --Ray Durem
Perhaps, there have not be enough conversations about the extents to which some styles of writing are weighted more heavily than others, about how select kinds of poetry appeal to certain audiences in particular contexts. Patricia Smith and Tracy K. Smith, no relation, are both fairly popular poets, but the poems one composed and presented to win National Poetry Slams are quite different than the poems the other one composed and presented to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
Judges for a poetry slam might undervalue the poetry of one Smith, and judges for a Pulitzer might undervalue the poetry of the other Smith. The judges and audiences for various kinds of poetry have a range of distinct beliefs, interests, expectations, and mechanisms for assessing and adding value to poets and bodies of poetry. Rather than spend considerable time downgrading poets and poetry that fall outside their purview, judges and audiences often tend to treat "different" poetry with indifference.
And even within a selected area of poetry, there's valuation of different kinds of poetry. Tyehimba Jess's Leadbelly (2005), Natasha Trethewey's Native Guard (2006), and Nikky Finney's Head Off & Split (2011), all award-winning volumes, contain crowns of sonnets. It's possible that the inclusion of that classic, highly valued form contributed in some way to making the volumes stand out as they did among some of the judges.
Based on whose work is regularly reprinted in anthologies and discussed by scholars, poets that showcase black music, celebrate black history and historical figures, and highlight features of African American culture are especially notable. Part of what makes Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka two of our most anthologized and critically acclaimed poets, for instance, relates to their focus on those issues--music, history, a variety of concepts related to black culture. Poets Jayne Cortez and Kevin Young have made music central to their bodies of works; their attention to music has contributed to aspects of their positive receptions by critics and reviewers.
And of course the valuation of particular kinds of poems and styles of writing shift. The types of militancy that helped define and popularize poetry of the black arts era is no longer as prevalent, at least not among many contemporary "literary" poets. Even the kind of black folk poetry that Hughes is known for seems represented primarily through the reprinting of Hughes's works. Often, factors such as institutional support, time advantages, and active receptions assist in determining what styles of writing and kinds of poetry employed by poets will receive added attention.
• Why are some poets more popular than others?