A Level Playing Field for Poets

The annual announcement of the finalists for our major book prizes is always a time to celebrate. Many outstanding poetry collections get their due in these moments, drawing more readers, more reviews, and more attention to the work therein.

Between 1992 and 2008, 12 of the National Book Award winners for poetry were collected or selected poems. Since then, only 3 such collections have been nominees for the award, and one of them won the award in 2017, making it the 13th omnibus book in the last 26 years to do so. By comparison, only 4 such books have one a Pulitzer Prize since 1992. Only 1 won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and that was in 1992.

Poets who reach the stage of their careers when they can release a New and Selected or Collected Poems are almost invariably worthy of praise. This post is not about rejecting their worth or the value of these books. Instead, I think this post is about making a better space for them to earn recognition.

There seems to be an inherent inequality in placing, for example, a poet’s first collection against a Selected Poems in the race for these major prizes. A selected poems will always represent the very best work from a series of published works, some of which, too, were already nominated for these major awards at their time of their publication.

A first book represents a different kind of labor, a different career moment. For as much as the selected poems is a kind of laurel, the first book shows up with greasy hands, sweat on its brow. A first book to achieve such significant recognition as a nomination for a major book award—well, that is already a major achievement.

Rather than placing these books into competition with one another, trying to somehow equate the difference in labor between a first book and a selected works, why not create categories where like can compete against like? If poetry book awards only recognized individual collections—and, let’s be honest, there are more of those being published now than perhaps ever before—while another category honored selecteds/collecteds as a more career-celebrating award, it would do more to benefit both early and mid career poets as well as our most treasured voices.

When looking to other awards and categories for similar issues, we find only 1 nominee in a similar vein for the National Book Award in Fiction from 1992 until now, and that was in 1994 for Grace Paley’s Collected Stories. Only 1 new and selected stories has ever won the NBCC Award for Fiction (in 2011). And only 2 collected stories have been finalists for the Pulitzer, in 1994 and 1995 (with Paley getting the ’95 nod too), but neither won.

Greatest hits albums aren’t eligible to win Grammys in the standard categories. Those awards are designed to reflect the spirit of the times more than celebrated careers. But in poetry, while it does seem like tastes and mindsets are changing, we haven’t made a strict distinction yet. But I think the time has come.

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