In brief: An attempt to find the top 20 poets in Britain, via an enormously subjective points system which looks at awards, anthologies and magazine publications since 2005. I’ve applied a football analogy in a desperate attempt to appear demotic (i.e. an attempt to avoid looking like the type of person who’d spend hours compiling a list of the top poets in Britain).
Have you ever wondered whether Seamus Heaney was the poetry world’s equivalent of Manchester United? Neither had I… until last week, when I decided to procrastinate by cataloguing award winners and anthologised poets, as well as everyone given space in Poetry Review, since 2005. The result is the following table of Britain’s top 20 poets:
1. Robin Robertson (335 points)
2. Seamus Heaney (325)
3. Sean O’Brien (295)
4. David Harsent (230)
5. Paul Farley (215)
= Alice Oswald (215)
= Don Paterson (215)
8. Sinéad Morrissey (190)
9. Christopher Reid (165)
= John Stammers (165)
= Hugo Williams (165)
12. John Burnside (155)
13. Jen Hadfield (135)
= Jean Sprackland (135)
15. Simon Armitage (130)
= John Haynes (130)
= Daljit Nagra (130)
= Pascale Petit (130)
= Fiona Sampson (130)
= Jo Shapcott (130)
Whilst this survey can’t pretend to be an objective guide to the ‘best’ contemporary poetry (trying to establish hierarchies is almost always reductive), it does offer an interesting picture of the ‘mainstream’ – the poets who are winning the prizes and making the anthologies.
At the top of the table are a closely-connected group of male writers: Don Paterson (the poetry editor at Picador), Paul Farley (published by Picador), Sean O’Brien (published by Picador) and Robin Robertson (published by Picador, poetry and fiction editor at Cape). The other members of the top seven are Seamus Heaney (published by Faber and Faber), David Harsent (published by Faber and Faber), and Alice Oswald (published by -see the pattern?- Faber and Faber).
If this proves anything at all, it proves that British poetry is a small world, dominated by a select group of influential publishers. Anyone who believes that those publishers exist merely to slap each other on the back and award each other the prizes is missing the point, though: David Harsent began with Oxford University Press, as did Alice Oswald; Sean O’Brien published his first collection with Bloodaxe. It seems reasonable to assume that every writer in this top 20 has worked their way up through ‘little magazines’ before enjoying ‘mainstream’ success.
A few observations:
There are 7 women and 13 men in the ‘Premier League’, but only 2 women in the top 12.
The winners of the three major poetry prizes (Forward, T.S. Eliot, Costa) and the anonymously-judged National Poetry Competition are usually different people. Do the ‘top ten’ writers bother entering the National? I’d suggest that they don’t, partly due to the distinctiveness of their styles: most judges would recognise a Seamus Heaney poem, for example, by the end of the first stanza, and many would be tempted to dismiss it as a blatant act of plagiarism by a minor writer. Remember the old anecdote about Charlie Chaplin entering a Chaplin look-alike competition and not even making it to the final…
Having said that, Sinéad Morrissey won the National Poetry Competition in 2007, and Jo Shapcott won it twice. Ian Duhig (twice), Helen Dunmore, Julia Copus, Neil Rollinson, Ruth Padel, Carol Ann Duffy, Philip Gross and Tony Harrison are all among the past winners.
Since 2005, Peter Porter and Ruth Fainlight have had the most poems in Poetry Review, with 9 each; Elaine Feinstein has been reviewed more times than any other poet. Seamus Heaney is the only poet to have won the T.S. Eliot prize and made the shortlist in a separate year. Sean O’Brien, Don Paterson and Robin Robertson have all won Forward Prizes in two categories (Best Collection and Best Single Poem).
Sean O’Brien is the only poet to have won the Forward Prize and the T.S. Eliot Prize in the same year (2007, for The Drowned Book).
Robin Robertson takes first place (and becomes the unofficial Manchester United of the poetry world), after winning two Forward Prizes, making the Forward shortlist for best collection, making two T.S. Eliot Prize shortlists and one Costa Prize shortlist since 2005. He has also been published in Poetry Review 8 times, and had 3 collections (Swithering, The Wrecking Light and ‘translated versions’ of Tomas Tranströmer) reviewed. The best contemporary British poet? That remains open to debate.