Over the course of the week, I'm dedicating a series of blog entries to a question that comes up frequently, often in indirect ways: Why are some poets more popular than others? Among literary artists, supporters of the arts, and interested observers, there's sometimes hard feelings about why this writer or that writer gained widespread recognition while these writers and those writers (presumably more talented and deserving) went or go largely unnoticed.
Questions and concerns about which writers receive inadequate attention (too much or too little) is especially pronounced in the realm of poetry since it is one of our most populace genres. A few years ago at a literature conference, I made a presentation on the 104 volumes of poetry that I was focusing on for a black studies project. I was surprised, frustrated, amused, and ultimately sympathetic when several members of the audience at my presentation immediately pointed out the large numbers of "important poets" and "ones who should but don't get recognized" were not on my list.
Even in the relatively small world of black poetry, there is continuous jockeying for position, lobbying for one's own or others' recognition, presentations of victory speeches, interrogations of the rules, and calls of unfairness. In other words, there's fierce competition. The fierceness is often veiled, the competitiveness regularly downplayed. Nonetheless, the rapid increase of literary and various other kinds of awards over the last couple of decades, as James English has noted in his book The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value, indicates the presence of a system of contests, which necessarily result in winners and losers.
My question about why some poets are more popular is really about an investigation into the many factors that assist in giving select writers special advantages. I believe there are countless distinct issues that propel writers and their careers, but for the sake of brevity, this week, I'll focus on just 4 factors: institutional support, the advantage of an extended publishing records, levels of reception, and kinds of writing.
My exploration this week of the roles of advantages allows me to think through and chart some of the politics of publishing history and literary culture, especially in regards to African American poetry. And I hope that a look at factors that contribute to the popularity of poets assists us in disentangling the many threads that stitches the status "major" onto a particular "writer."
• Institutional support and the popularity of poets
• The Advantage of an Extended Publishing Record
• The importance of an active, diverse reception
• Styles of Writing and the Popularity of Poets