Who gets what, and why? Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young look at the poetry awards system in the USA
Some days we think of poetry as a dead antelope and poets as the wolves, hyenas, and coyotes who come to fight over the innards, teeth bared, growling. Some days we think of poetry as the center panel of Bosch’sGarden of Earthly Delightswith poets as the naked libertines in small groups that notice only each other, some immersed in a pool balancing apples on their heads, some floating together in a bubble, others riding on the backs of birds. We notice these myriad socialities because we are poets, and because sociality defines who we read and who we listen to and what we think about. But the personal histories and arguments about politics and aesthetics that take up so much of our brain are all irrelevant to the average lay reader. How does that person, interested in poetry but not involved in the fights and the alliances, decide what to read? While novels and memoirs receive regular review attention in the mainstream media, poetry is largely invisible in American culture. It’s not a regular topic of dinner party conversation (unless of course everyone at the table is a poet). In the absence of a poet friend with invariably strong opinions or chance encounters with idiosyncratic staff picks at a local bookstore, it is difficult to sort through the many volumes of poetry published by coyotes and libertines each year, often by small presses with no publicity budget. Enter the literary prize. During the pivotal prize season, a handful of works are plucked out and deemed excellent, transformed from a pile of meat or floating bubble into Literature. These anointed works do receive mainstream media attention around the time the prize is announced. They appear in the feed. They circulate. They find their way to readers who are not also poets.
In the US, these prizes are awarded by a series of privately funded literary institutions. Their missions are to defend poetry in the abstract, to argue for its continued relevance, equanimity, and accessibility. They are the reason that April is National Poetry Month and why Billy Collins is pushing poems on high schoolers. They organize poetry recitation competitions for students. They often publish big, friendly books like Poem-a-Day: 365 Poems for Every Occasion and Fifty Years of American Poetry: Over 200 Important Works by America’s Modern Masters. And they frequently commission defenses of poetry for their blogs and websites and journals. Several host websites that archive free downloadable and linkable poems, a sign of the low monetary stakes of poetry; no novelist would feel that an institution distributing their work for free was doing them a favor. Almost all of these institutions claim to want to bring poetry, a genre that historically slides elite, back to the general public in some form. It is an open question if this is possible but the literary prize is part of this desire. In this model the literary prize is understood as softening the insularity of poetry and providing a wider angle of evaluation, one regulated by the nation’s major literary institutions.
How does the average lay person, interested in poetry but not involved in the fights and the alliances, decide what to read?
To preserve their legitimacy as adjudicator of what is excellent or not, literary institutions go to great lengths to appear benevolent and fair. Most use large committees because, as James English points out in The Economy of Prestige, “consensus and compromise” drives groups “toward safe, obvious, and expected choices.” The Academy of American Poets Fellowship and the Wallace Stevens Award are awarded by a Board of Chancellors, a group of fifteen poets nominated by prior Chancellors for this purpose. The Pulitzer uses screening juries of an unspecified number who nominate three finalists to an eighteen member Board who then votes. The Tufts Prizes use a “group of qualified screeners” who recommend fifty titles to a rotating panel of five final judges. The National Book Award uses a panel of five judges. Some institutions do the reverse and claim that a lack of transparency is the very thing that establishes their lack of bias. The MacArthur Foundation uses a selection committee of “approximately 12 people” who serve anonymously because they believe “people readily provide frank impressions if they have an assurance that their responses will not be disseminated beyond the program staff and Selection Committee.” The Whiting Foundation similarly uses a team of anonymous nominators and then another team of anonymous selectors.
Despite these efforts at fair evaluation, institutions are beset by objections to the inequitable distribution of prizes. Sometimes these complaints argue that the whole system is fixed. Foetry.com is perhaps the most infamous example. In 2005, Portland librarian Alan D. Cordle anonymously set up a crowdsourced website aimed at exposing everything from nepotism to insider trading in the awarding of literary prizes. But this sort of complaint is more often heard in the grumbling between one writer and another as they trade gossip about the libertines on a committee who awarded a prize to some other libertine who reclines in their same bubble. More often, and ever more public, is the objection regarding the identities and demographics of who is included and who is not included in the prize’s definition of excellence. June Jordan and Houston A. Baker, Jr, for instance, took out an ad in the New York Times Book Review in 1988 to campaign for Toni Morrison after Beloved had been passed over for both the National Book and National Book Critics Circle awards. In 1998, Fred Viebahn wrote an open letter to Stanley Kunitz in International Quarterly noting that there had “never been a non-white chancellor in the Academy.” His letter accused the Academy of “unapologetic racial ‘purity’ and gross gender imbalance.”
During the pivotal prize season, a handful of works are plucked out and deemed excellent, transformed from a pile of meat or floating bubble into Literature
These objections were clearly heard by literary institutions and prize committees. As liberal organizations, they value transparency and inclusion and even if they, like all institutions, cannot fully embody these values, they are often quick to respond and make changes when their constituencies point out lapses. Morrison won the Pulitzer that year. After Viebahn’s letter, the Academy’s Board of Directors took over the nominating process for a year and appointed Lucille Clifton, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Jay Wright (who declined) as Chancellors and limited Chancellor terms to six years. This strategy was so successful that by 2013, more than 66 percent of the Academy’s major prizes went to writers who racially identified as other than white (prior to 1990, only two black writers, and no other writers of color, were awarded by the Academy). And Cordle can claim credit for the frequent contest guideline that is often colloquially called the “Jorie Graham rule”; it generally stipulates that judges cannot award prizes to their current or former students. But the rumor of a fix remains, as does the sense of racialized exclusion.
Poets pay close attention to prize announcements because such a small number are given out each year and their economic impact is significant. Prizes are often the only way that poets will ever receive any meaningful compensation for their writing. Most poetry publishers do not pay royalties, and if they do, the payments are modest; a poetry title listed with Small Press Distribution is a lucky one if it manages to sell 1,000 copies. But around a million dollars are distributed to around twenty-five poets in prize form each year. For those lucky enough to enter the prestige circuit, these monetary awards can be generous, life changing. The amount a poet can receive from just one prize easily overwhelms the total they will ever receive from sales, and regular wins can lead to some financial independence. Adrienne Rich, for instance, took home just short of a million dollars between 1974 and 2003, or the equivalent of over $30,000 a year for those 29 years (and if you adjust those numbers to 2020 equivalents, it comes out to about $1,600,000 or $55,000 a year). For prize winning poets, these winnings are supplemented by what prestige can yield, including high-profile readings, bookings through speaker’s agents and bureaus, academic jobs, and residencies. But for every well-awarded writer like Rich, there are many poets, many well-known and well-respected poets even, who never receive a major literary prize. There are also entire aesthetic tendencies that are not well represented in this network of prize winners. Those who write more experimentally, from the beats to the Language poets, show up only occasionally and usually in the singular. Slam and spoken word poets have also traditionally been excluded, although Sam Sax’s and Danez Smith’s recent wins are probably a sign of change.
Prizes are often the only way that poets will ever receive any meaningful compensation for their writing
A few years ago we began a project to understand the literary prize. We were interested in this question of whether the literary prize was impartial or not, who is favored, who left out. To better see the changing contours of the prize over time, we made a spreadsheet of winners and judges of forty literary prizes in all genres from 1918 forward. The prizes we examined have (or had) a $10,000 or higher award. Our dataset includes 429 winners of close to eight hundred prizes for poetry, beginning with Carl Sandberg’s 1919 Pulitzer win and ending with last year’s winners. Some of what we noticed was obvious; some was idiosyncratic. First, about a third of winning poets receive more than one prize. (For comparison, only 15 percent of fiction writers in our dataset have won more than once.) W. S. Merwin is the all-time winner; he received ten prizes. Women received about 40 percent of the prizes on average at the beginning of the century; in the last five years, that number has gone up to 50 percent. The racial demographics of prizes are a far more complicated story. In the twentieth century, only three percent of prizes awarded went to poets who identified as other than white.12 In the last five years this has changed dramatically: writers who identify as other than white were 72 percent of the winners. Our data also allowed us to see the degree to which literary excellence is yoked to higher education. Of those 429 winners, over half have a degree of some sort from a cluster of eight schools: Harvard, University of Iowa, Stanford, Columbia, Yale, New York University, University of California, Berkeley, and Princeton. Forty percent also have an MFA and 20 percent of these MFAs were awarded by the U of Iowa alone. Around 60 percent of the poets who get tapped to judge attended that same small cluster of schools.
Some of these findings, especially the role of elite institutions, were unsurprising. But what struck us was the narrowing, symbiotic quality of prize networks. A closer look at the judges and winners of literary prizes illustrates the interpersonal and professional connections through which literary merit accrues. Take the example of Robert Pinsky, who was Poet Laureate from 1997-2000. Among his other awards are the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, the Academy of American Poets’ Lenore Marshall Award (which he won twice, in 1988 and 1997), and the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry. This is more than a modest amount of literary trophies, although still far from exceptional. But where Pinsky really stands out is in his capacity as a judge. Pinsky is in some way responsible for awarding over two million dollars in winnings to his peers, during which he judged close to 40 prizes.
Carl Phillips, Pinsky’s student at Boston University, is one among many anointed by Pinsky during those years. Pinsky was on the committees that resulted in Phillips winning a Witter Bynner Poetry Fellowship, a Kingsley Tufts Award, and an Academy of American Poets Fellowship. (These awards predate the “Jorie Graham rule.”) Another characteristic of the US prize system is the manner in which Phillips has followed in Pinsky’s footsteps as a bestower of rewards. Phillips was nominated to become a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets by a committee that would have included Pinsky and he began judging the Tufts award the year after Pinsky vacated the position.
A few years ago we began a project to understand the literary prize. We were interested in this question of whether the literary prize was impartial or not, who is favored, who left out
Louise Glück is another poet with both a strong prize record and close-knit connections to other prizewinning poets. Phillips and Pinsky were among the Academy Chancellors to judge the Wallace Stevens Award the year that Glück won. Her other honors include an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, a Pulitzer, a Lannan Award, a Bollingen, a National Book Award, and most recently the Nobel Prize, announced as we were finishing this essay. This brings her winnings so far to a little over a million and a half dollars. As a judge, she has been on enough committees to have played a role in awarding over a million dollars to around 32 of her peers. As with Pinsky and the Tufts, Phillips would eventually replace Glück as judge of the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 2010. Glück is not just among those awarded by Pinsky but also his close friend. “She talks to [him] nearly every day,” noted the Washington Post when announcing her 2003 appointment as Poet Laureate.
Reciprocity defines this subculture. Pinsky, Phillips, and Glück all awarded prizes to a small, overlapping group of poets, many of whom in turn awarded them a prize (or vice versa). When Pinsky won the Lenore Marshall, Mark Doty was a judge; so too Pinsky was a judge for Doty’s National Book Award. Galway Kinnell and Sharon Olds both served as judges when Phillips won the Academy of American Poets Fellowship; subsequently Phillips sat on the committees that awarded a Wallace Stevens Award to Kinnell and a Pulitzer to Olds. When Glück won the Pulitzer, Frank Bidart was one of the judges; she was on the committee when Bidart received a Wallace Stevens Award. When Glück won the Bollingen Henri Cole judged, and, again, Glück was on the committee that awarded Cole a Jackson Poetry prize. Literally everyone on the committee that awarded Glück the Wallace Stevens Award had already received a prize in which she played a role as judge: Glück served on the committees that awarded Academy of American Poets Fellowships to Lyn Hejinian, Ellen Bryant Voigt, and Sharon Olds, and a Wallace Stevens award to Gerald Stern. And so on. Figure one captures the back and forth dynamic that we have just described.
One can play this game of naming associations between poets all night long. So it would be wrong to see these three as somehow gaming the system. We present them as examples of how the system works, not as frauds. They stood out to us as three writers in our data set who both won and judged a significant number of prizes and whose friendships are public. It is also important to realize that the insular nature of prizes might not even be legible to those within it. Most of the time, poets are on committees with four or five or six other poets. It is impossible to tell what sort of role any one poet might play on these committees (and it is possible that some poets might recuse themselves from all of these decisions that resemble conflicts of interest; however all the poet-judges could not do this all of the time). Certainly it is reasonable and not unethical for two established poets to admire one another’s work. Almost all poetry communities are small ecologies maintained through what John Thompson in Merchants of Culture calls an “economy of favors.” It is usually poets who organize readings, edit journals, and publish books of poems for other poets, even within institutions. Because poetry has such strong ties to higher education, the teacher-student relationship becomes deeply consequential in this economy of favors. Teachers are expected to promote the work of their students, to call in favors for them, to write blurbs. This is called mentorship, not cronyism. And the reverse, poets often reward their mentors. This is understood as respecting one’s elders. We could easily write a version of this article about our own lives as writers and readers of poetry, albeit a version with less prize money and prestige. We are thinking here of many small moments such as when we have invited friends to send work for a journal or blurbed their book, but also larger moments when we were legible to a hiring committee because of our mentor or former teacher, or when we have been invited by friends to give paid readings at the college where they work. And there is also the time one of us won a prize and a friend was on the committee or the time one of us judged a book contest and a close friend won, even though we recused ourselves from the decision. Even more complicated is the fact that the few times we have judged something, even when the manuscripts were anonymous, we recognized many of the authors simply because we were familiar with their work.
But despite attempts by literary institutions to escape the economy of favors by, for example, relying on large committees, the economy of favors remains. This has a lot to do with the time-honored tradition of winners becoming judges. 41 percent of prizewinning poets also serve as judges. And most who judge do so an average of six times. Once we began to understand the importance of judging, we realized that the Academy of American Poets plays an outsized role in this ecosystem. This surprised us. In the public discourse about literary prizes, the National Book Award and Pulitzer announcements often receive the most attention and speculation. The Poetry Foundation similarly looms large thanks to the prominence of Poetry and the organization’s engagement with younger writers. The Academy appears, by contrast, as a benign and somewhat stalwart literary institution whose presence is mostly unnoticed. But because the Chancellors are poet-judges who confer awards for many years (and are, in turn, rewarded by their peers) those associated with the Academy play a major role in determining who will become a heavy-hitting prize winner, and who will not.
For most of the twentieth century, the prize’s definitions of literary excellence included only white writers
This power of selection is most instrumental in the twentieth century. At first, being a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets was either a lifetime appointment or limited to two sets of twelve years. This meant that some poets served very long terms. Richard Wilbur was a Chancellor for 34 years, Daniel Hoffman for 25, and Stanley Kunitz for 26. Wilbur played a singular role in shaping mid-century understandings of excellent poetry. In 1999, after Viebahn’s open letter, six-year term limits were imposed but the limits did not change much. Six years is still a very long term: the fact that Pinsky, Phillips, and Glück all did tours of duty as Chancellors is the only reason that they have been able together to play a role in the rewarding of more than $4,500,000 to over a hundred of their peers. While it is typical for winners to transform into judges, there is an unusually large amount of overlap between the winners and the judges of Academy prizes. Roughly half of those who receive a major Academy prize eventually become Chancellors themselves. In the past, this network has awarded prizes to itself: Merwin was a Chancellor, for instance, when he won his Wallace Stevens Award. But more often, the Chancellors reward an individual poet right before that poet is called up to join their ranks, or a few years after they finish their time as a Chancellor.
While the Chancellor system makes the Academy particularly influential, the organization’s particular cluster of prizes and fellowships should not be thought of in isolation. Different prizes are instrumental at different stages of writers’ careers. The Pulitzer, for instance, is often the starter prize for poets who go on to win multiple awards. The Academy tends to serve as a multiplier, as it is more likely to reward previous winners of other prizes. A full 80 percent of Poet Laureates have also been rewarded by the Academy. The National Book Award, though more of an industry prize created to increase the visibility and sales of midlist titles, still counts Academy awardees as 65 percent of its Poetry winners. Over half of the winners of the Bollingen and the Pulitzer have Academy associations. There are nine poets who have associations with all five awards: Glück, Charles Wright, Conrad Aiken, Howard Nemerov, Mona Van Duyn, Richard Eberhart, Wilbur, Kunitz, and Merwin. These nine won 78 prizes and were involved in awarding almost half the prizes (including 24 prizes to each other) for poetry from 1948-2015. Their demographics represent the prototypical twentieth century prize winner to an almost cartoonish degree: all are white, seven graduated from or attended an ivy league institution, and nearly half went to Harvard.
For most of the twentieth century, the prize’s definitions of literary excellence included only white writers. This history is probably one of the reasons why such awards are still perceived as overwhelmingly white, although the racial diversity of prizewinners more or less begins to echo the racial demographics of the US as a whole in the 2000s (we do not see this as a baseline for what should be called excellent, but rather a descriptive metric). The reasons for this change are large, complicated, and interconnected, reflecting the shifting cultural terrain of the late 1960s and culminating in the so-called “culture wars” of the late 1980s. Literature played a major role in institutional debates about multiculturalism and this attention dramatically changed the canon of what is thought of as excellent American literature. At the same time, racially attentive literary institutions such as the Dark Room Collective, VONA, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Cave Canem, and Kundiman began to offer supportive programming and network-building opportunities for writers who identified as other than white.
Prizes reflect power imbalances that are larger than the genre of poetry
Despite changing the demographics of the prize, these larger shifts have not changed the insular nature of prestige networks. The Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellows offer a case study in this regard. The Fellows are a striking cross-section of a new literary establishment which in almost every way diverges from the old guard of poetry: they are young, racially diverse, often queer, and many emerge from spoken word scenes. But in other ways, the narrow scope of the prize remains the same. Half attended Stanford, New York University, University of Iowa, University of Houston, or University of Texas, Austin. Three quarters of the fellows have an MFA. Phillip B. Williams recently published a “Letter of Apology from a Ruth Lilly Fellow.” As Williams’s letter points out, there is no escaping “the nepotism of the award,” or the fact that everyone who won it “seemed to be close friends.” It is difficult not to notice, for instance, that all but one member of the Dark Noise Collective has won a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship in recent years.
So what is to be done? We are not purists who want to do away with prizes entirely, especially not at the moment they are finally being distributed to a more racially diverse group of writers. But nor do we wish to agitate for a further reformed prize. If there is anything our research has shown us, it is that even as they do their best to course correct towards transparency, equity, and inclusion, prizes will still be prizes. They reflect power imbalances that are larger than the genre of poetry. Much of the cultural production recognized as establishment within the US is produced by those with ties to elite schools and the economy of favors that comes with those degrees. It seems unlikely that a series of rules could ever really combat these conditions (barring a lottery, which would negate the whole premise of a prize). One possibility begins with adjusting one’s perspective and understanding that the prize does not reflect unbiased excellence, but rather exchanges of honors among a small cadre of poets. If from there we accept that poetry is made up of various cadres, and the prize cannot possibly be ecumenical, we could think about how to diversify the prize winnings among these cadres while also reducing the inevitable biases when judges and winners come from the same cadre. This might mean going further than the Jorie Graham rule and insisting that wolves could only ever judge prizes given to libertines who balance apples on their heads who could in turn distribute spoils exclusively to coyotes who could only ever decide which riders of birds should receive that year’s purse for riders of birds. This would be complicated, of course: some poets are both hyena and libertine; some are wolves immersed in pools of apples that do not balance on anyone’s head; others are birds pecking at the eyes of coyotes who float by, serene, embracing antelopes in bubbles. The other option is to accept that this economy of favors cannot be undone without a dramatic rethinking of how poets are supported, valued, and ultimately understood to be excellent, which would require creating new metrics for evaluation. We are not sure what these would be. But we do think that this would perhaps be an opportunity to reconnect us to what matters about poetry: its atypical thinking, its counter-institutional possibilities, its ability to stir emotions, its beauty and its grace too.
This article was first published on ASAP/J, the open-access platform of ASAP/Journal, the scholarly publication of the Association of the Study of the Arts of the Present. The Frip reproduces it here under the Creative Commons Attribution License.