Thick Markets for Poets


Competitions are for horses, not artists.
– Bela Bartok

Following from my last blog post are the further questions of sincerity as a poetics of craft: the accuracy of detail and the acuity of poetry as it works on us line by line, the strike and rest of imagery in relation to form, its assertions, its moods … And especially if these greet us without us having to keep noticing the (apparent) self-satisfaction or manipulation of the poet, unless that is of course in a strong way intentional. Or feels intentional. Openly intentional moves towards sincerity as fudging and flourish move away from it. And therefore within any musing on what the poet is doing, 'intentionality' is itself a concept we are unable to avoid, questioning intent towards some definitive answer, when in all likelihood there is none. Intention cannot be really answered. There is instead – a polite phrase for bullshit meter – our reader's conviction.

From this matter of conviction, then, I want to return to something further back, in my first blog, namely judging poetry prizes. How does a poem or book convince several individual judges it is a 'winner'? What is happening when three or more people, sometimes poets or (sadly) sometimes people from related disciplines, read 80 books and say this one is the best? Most judges will have only a brief stint at the job and profess their own personal sense of poetics. So judges will inevitably carry into the meetings a different set of values and understandings. We should expect wildly varying lists of winners over time. Are judges able to agree on poetics, craft, risk, and overall achievement, leave sentiment aside, leave knee-jerk decisions out of the room and … resist giving their mates the prize? (Come on, we know how often this last occurs.)

I have been a judge where one judge insisted a friend win and that no discussion take place. I have been a judge where the likely winning-poet was the right call for winner, regardless, but the resistance to making this decision was significant. Some books are hard to resist. We have all seen a poet give the award to a very good friend. Ho hum. We do notice.

In economics there is a phenomenon called “thick markets”: most new activity takes place where most activity already takes place. Every win means other poets don't win, and winning is also its own success: the poet is far more likely to win again in the future, not because they are better but because they have won. Nevertheless, the awarding of any prize can lead to the accumulative perception of that poet as better. Does this sort of thing really happen? Or does my earlier assumption of variety apply? I decided to check, to see who has been nabbing the big awards over the last 25 years or so.

The following statistics are from the major national book awards as far back as I could find data. Therefore they will omit earlier awards and less central national and state awards. I haven't counted less publicised awards such as the ACT and the WA Premiers Prizes. These have tended to have regional notice, literally so in WA (until going national in 2009). Nor have I included national but now defunct awards such as the National Book Council 'Banjo' Awards. Figures will also be incomplete because of archive year limits, i.e. earlier than the mid 80s. Some of these poets have won more gongs than this weird list. And I'm sorry if I have missed anyone out.

NSW Premier's Prize Lit. Awards (Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize)
+ Vic Premier's Prize
+ The Age Book of the Year Awards (Dinny O'Hearn Poetry Prize) 
+ the SA Festival Awards (John Bray Poetry Award)
+ QLD – Judith Wright Calanthe Award (more recent than the above)

  • Jennifer Maiden – 6 prizes (3 recent 3 up to 2000) NSW
  • Les Murray – 6 prizes (1 recent, 3 in mid 90s, 2 in mid 80, may be others) NSW
  • John Tranter – 5 prizes (4 recent, only one late 80s) (3 for Urban Myths) NSW
  • Robert Adamson – 5 prizes (2 recent, 3 from early 90s) NSW
  • Judith Beveridge – 5 prizes (2 only fairly recent, 3 from 80s) NSW
  • Robert Gray – 5 prizes (up to 2002) NSW
  • Luke Davies – 4 prizes (3 recent, including PM's prize) NSW
  • John Kinsella – 4 prizes (2 recent, including PM's prize) WA

…and 2 or 3 prizes

  • JS Harry NSW
  • Peter Boyle NSW
  • Gig Ryan ex-NSW

I'm willing to bet these figures are a shock to you – they were to me. So, impossible to credit, but if you want to win a national book prize – set up your career in NSW. And be one of the few. The difficult data to collect is who made the decisions, who judged? Most judging panels are in flux, with many different judges coming on and then leaving but somehow these same few names keep winning the gongs. Is this NSW thing the morphic-resonance-field left over (and a left-over) from the big bang – of the poetry wars? Murray and Gray and A&R vs Tranter and Forbes and Dransfield-to-the-future impulses? Maiden and Tranter and Adamson and Murray and Gray occupy nearly all these prize places STILL. Judy Beveridge is the only intruder – and it has been said in the best possible sense that Beveridge occupies the places Judith Wright and Gwen Harwood held: a female poet of great individual strength who is not beholden to the men's games.

But so is Jennifer Harrison, from Victoria, yet she doesn't figure in these book prizes and she is as good as anyone on that list. Alex Skovron hasn't won a major prize for his brilliantly imaginative books. Why? Victoria has a big poetry world, but Vic poets are not on that winning list.

We tend to imagine, based on frequent shortlistings – which are also very hard if not impossible to find for this blog piece – that some poets have done better, without quite knowing the stats. I thought Adamson and Lawrence, two often linked poets and good friends, had won more of our recent awards. I knew Maiden had become a 'winner' but this many? On top of these six are her ubiquitous (knee-jerk?) shortlistings, for what are essentially similar books. Knowing Tranter had been under-done for much of his formative work it is reassuring to see his recent success, but three of these biggies came for the one book, Urban Myths. Is this catch-up? Adamson won a trio for The Clean Dark and is often listed but hasn't actually won as much as that seems (at the time).

But where is everybody else? These are not the only poets in Australia! The figures suggest the rest of us are complete dopes. Judging like this appears to be thickening the deal. Can't they think outside the thickening? It seems not. Where is the natural variability and dynamic of different judges using different criteria and convictions to arrive at way more outlying decisions? This disproves the cliche – that book prizes are a lottery. Lotteries like this would be taken to a Royal Commision! Symptoms like this would suggest clusters. If it's for horses, then most of the field seems nobbled. This is an absurdly narrow-minded set of judgements, and immediately suggest panel judges cannot read rigorously and/or cannot agree and/or are unwilling to give prizes outside a perceived status quo, ie: they are lazy, they play safe, they are even cowardly. They go for 'names'. And there's no avoiding names on books, unlike poetry manuscript prizes.

In contradiction to what I said above, sometimes the judge/s are the same people across years and prizes. Sometimes a judgement stands out: Luke Davies was awarded The Age Poetry Prize for Totem, then (it's hard to fathom the discussions that must have taken place with the other judges and their winning books) was also awarded the overall Best Book of the Year, i.e. over all the other genres. A few years later he was awarded the huge Prime Minister's Prize for his next book. These are huge accolades and even huger money – but the same judge was common to both calls. Davies certainly has his fans and even if I'm not among them, this call looks bad to me. I don't buy it. And I'm certainly not alone.

Against these clusters, wins and this thick market activity is the obvious other-side: other poets who are the repeat-winners' contemporaries, are not only less likely to win, they become progressively less likely to win in the future because of their fading credit. It's a worry. Conviction and a deep awareness of the various poetics at play, rigorous readings and rapid turnover of judges do not seem to meld into a dynamic array of choice. Quite the opposite. Many have suggested that book prizes should even be spread around a bit, deliberately, so when several terrific books reach the top of discussions the panel should award the poet least awarded, or most unlikely either by riskiness of book or faintness of profile.

Yeah? Let's not hold our breaths.