Thursday, February 03, 2005

Ranking the Poets

Ok, I feel like the last couple posts have been a little bland and repetitive. That happens when you play it safe and don't make enough of an effort to offer original and perhaps provocative ideas. It's ok if this blog was solely intended for personal friends and family -- they already know all about my blandness and repetitiveness :) -- but I have to keep reminding myself that I want this blog to be fun and different. So here goes:

I've been wondering whether it is possible or desirable to rank poets hierarchically, allegedly on the basis of the quality of their poetry, sort of like NCAA sports teams or U.S. News and World Report's annual college and graduate school rankings. Well, the answer to my first question, as evidenced by the two examples, is that it is possible to, say, put Marilyn Chin at #3 and T.S. Eliot at #8. Anyone can rank.

But is it desirable? Hmmm...rankings and questions of rankings are, of course, very controversial in NCAA basketball and football and perhaps even more controversial with U.S. News and World Report's college and graduate school rankings. In fact, many critics have argued that U.S. News and World Report should not rank colleges and graduate school rankings, because the ranking methodologies are flawed and the idea of ranking itself only encourages ill-feelings and competitiveness between schools. If we made up a ranking of poets, especially of living poets, then the same critique could be levied against these rankings. These arguments are valid.

But I would put forth the counter-argument that rankings of poets may be fair and desirable in poetry, for the same reason that they are fair and desirable for classifying undergraduate and graduate schools, because poets are already ranked. It bears repeating: poets are already ranked, just as undergrads and graduate schools have already been ranked by social conditons of wealth, societal perceptions, institutional histories, pop culture, and power in general. "Prestigious" poets and editors in power rank poets and poetry, just as undergraduate and graduate schools typically rely on high school class rank and SAT scores in admissions decisions and often rank students with class ranks themselves.

Poets are ranked by literary magazines who decide which poems should or should not be published, poetry publishers who decide which books of poetry should or should not be published, poetry critics who decide whether to give a favorable review, general readers of poetry who decide whether or not to purchase a book, and perhaps most importantly, by "prestigious" poets who decide whether to give a poet and her or his poetry their attention and their approval. Poets are even arguably ranked by their own social class and socioeconomic situations, which has given them the education and time to write poetry.

I would assert that there is such a rough hierarchy in Asian-American poetry as well. It goes something like this, from top to bottom: "prestigious" national print magazines, national ethnic print magazines, small press magazines, online publications, individual bloggers who are "prestigious" poets, the rest of the poetry bloggers (including all "azn" poetry bloggers), and vanity press publications. It is more difficult to place state poetry societies and spoken word movements in this hierarchy of wealth and power.

A ranking of poets would help make this hierarchy more open and transparent. It would also make the hierarchy more open to reform say, if people think that Poet X is better than Poet Y but Poet Y is not better than Poet X...By now, you're probably thinking, nah, ranking cannot possibly work! Poets would be at each other's throats, and the rankings would be so subjective anyway. Well, I think the first point is valid, though if true, it is sadly anti-intellectual that poets cannot deal with openness and transparency and have an interesting discussion over the comparative qualities of poetry. The second point is not as valid, because, as I've discussed above, there is already a ranking of poets and poetry, however subjective.

For example, why is it that the blogging world has recently been so interested in Best American Poetry 2004? As David Lehmann correctly suggests in his introduction to BAP 2004, it is at least partly because the series has laid claim to the title of "Best" American Poetry and subsequently has become a best-seller, at least by poetry standards, as opposed to other poetry anthologies and publications. If at least a part of most readers does not believe in the existence of a bestness in poetry, then this anthology would likely not sell nearly as well.


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