Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Institutional Support and the Popularity of Poets

Why are some poets more popular than others? For starters, poets who are more well known are typically the beneficiaries of more institutional support. That support comes from a major publisher, a literary agency, key literary journals and other publishing or production outlets, award institutions, and places of employment (usually colleges and universities). 

One reason that Langston Hughes and his works remain so prominent--that is beyond people genuinely enjoying his works--has to do with the tremendous support he has received from Knopf publisher over the last 80-plus years. Notably, Knopf kept works by Hughes in circulation during the Great Depression when various other writers' works went out of print. Not surprisingly, one of today's more known contemporary poets, Kevin Young is published by Knopf, and he receives tremendous support for an active and expansive publishing career.

Poetry magazine, one of the oldest and most venerable publishing institutions for American poetry was vital to the early careers and national exposure of Gwendolyn Brooks and Margaret Walker, publishing what would become the poets' most known works. Walker's "For My People" appeared in Poetry in 1937 and Brooks's "We Real Cool" appeared in in the periodical in 1959. The publication of poems on the pages of that leading publishing institutional gave the poets literary capital, encouragement, and confidence.     

The more powerful and highly regarded the publishing institution the more literary capital and prestige added to a poet who publishes in such a venue. Literary journals are not in and of themselves that popular; however, major publishers and literary agents tend to value the prestige of journals and seem more likely to support poets who have placed poems in important periodicals.  Publishing in respected journals then might be an important avenue to gaining access to even larger institutions.

English departments and MFA programs have become increasingly important institutional homes for poets. Well-resourced colleges and universities can provide  poets with the kind of long-term support necessary to develop a writing career--a process that can take decades. Nikki Giovanni and Rita Dove have been based at Virgina Tech and the University of Virginia, respectively, since the late 1980s. Among other things, those institutions have served as important sources of stability (financial and otherwise) in the poets' lives and will likely to continue to do so until the poets retire.

Institutional support alone does make poets popular, but poets often become more distinguished than others when institutional support is high and other factors are at work such as extended publishing records and active receptions.

Why are some poets more popular than others?

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