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The Best Poems of 2030

In their 2020 ASAP Journal examination of poetry awards, Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young suggested that prize winnings could be spread among cadres of poets. "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."

The National Endowment for the Arts reported that 12 percent of American adults read poetry in 2017, up five percentage points from 2012. That near doubling of poetry's readership from 6.7 was a cause for quiet celebration. A 1992 survey reported 17 percent. It may be too early to tell what effect Amanda Gorman will have on poetry's appeal to readers. Maya Angelou's poem for Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration was also well-received and the subsequent bound edition of The Pulse of Morning sold over a million copies. Two decades later the Washington Post reported that poetry was going extinct.

If disinterested readers have the last word as prize judges and guest editors, poetry might regain the trust of a wider audience. There are signs of continued reader engagement: the dozens of lay persons who have written essays for Poetry and the outnumbered Forward judges who aren't poets.

Lay readers could make final selections from shortlists and winnowed submissions. As judges they'd recuse themselves if they knew someone on a shortlist; as editors they wouldn't accept the poems of friends. Artists, scientists and prose writers who value poetry would represent large and varied audiences. Poets could still do the heavy lifting, on screening committees, though their suggestions might be rejected.

Well-funded prizes and magazines could pay for their own disinterested judges, editors and screening committees. Each year the Poetry Foundation could bear such costs for a few randomly selected prizes and journals that requested its help. The Guardian's Not the Booker Prize utilizes readers but might strain out interested parties. Ideally, final judges would be a mix of groundlings and grandees. For Porlock's immediate purposes, a poet's a verse writer who has been anthologized, favorably reviewed or won prizes; a guest editor would have some distinction in a field other than poetry and be willing to read a few dozen poems.

Asking disinterested contributors to recommend contemporary poets to other readers, surveys by influential publications could develop a jury pool of readers who would independently confirm the value of poets. Those surveys could produce impartial and authoritative guides to the best new poetry, even virtual anthologies with links to online poems. Something similar might be done for other arts.

Porlock's a first step. A resourceful poet could launch a transformative publication using guest editors and line up judges for a model prize, enfranchising readers in stark contrast to hundreds of magazines and awards. She'd suspect that her opinions of other poets are skewed in favor of work similar to her own and to that of friends and allies. Rather than being an advocate or a kingmaker, she'd hold up a mirror to poetry and herself.

Poets can no more depend on the affirmation of their peers than we can rely on fossil fuels. One literary magazine and a small prize could begin to change how poets are evaluated and how poetry's regarded. Several magazines and a major prize might significantly improve poetry's cultural standing. The alternative is a busy but unconvincing self-importance. Endorsed by a number of representative readers, a poet could believe that her work will matter.

Stan Jacoby

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