many newspaper articles on poet Nikky Finney over the last couple of weeks after her receipt of the National Award for Poetry speaks to the important role major literary awards can play in expanding the coverage of poets and their works. Poets rarely receive widespread media attention for their work. But winning major awards can push poets into broader public discussions at least for a while.
James English explains in his book The Economy of Prestige (2005) that literary awards and prizes in the arts and the entertainment industry have increased over the last decades. The interest in competition and more importantly the capital generated through the facilitation of awards competitions and shows have prompted the increase.
Longstanding awards like the Pulitzer, the Nobel, and the National Book Award bestow a higher level of prestige to recipients. The poems in Finney's book Head Off & Split remained the same even after her name was announced as the winner of the National Book Award for Poetry, but the cultural value of her book was elevated, and in fact as strange as it is to write, the cultural value of the poet shifted as well.
After the announcement, Head Off & Split was transformed from simply a volume of poetry to a prestigious prize-winning book. Finney remained a poet, but now, almost all biographical sketches, bylines, and introductions of her will note that she is a poet who earned a National Book Award.
In a field as heavily populated as poetry, titles and distinctions like that are rare and valuable. In fact, the cultural currency that poets generate by winning prestigious awards is often much more than the actual prize money they receive.
Related content: A Notebook on the work of Nikky Finney