Find Somewhat Important Poets Here

I kid; this blog doesn’t claim to be a definitive list of “Somewhat Important Poets.” This blog is about the mis / adventures, scandals, and conflicts between and within U.S. poetry communities in the 21st century.

This blog explores how we–in our various and often overlapping poetry communities–decide which poets are important and why.  My research is about poetry communities, including what poetry communities do to create importance for poets and poems, and how differing definitions of important poets and poems create conflict. Sometimes these moments of instability or crisis are productive, as they tend to expose and underscore previously unspoken differences in poetic desires, values, and goals. I find these occasions, when contradictory pressures are placed on poetry, deeply compelling.  They are at the center of my work.

For this inaugural post, I examine the recent adventure from which I draw my blog’s name: John Harkey’s “Importance / Unimportance List.” John and I are colleagues in the Brittain Fellowship program; together, we watched a recent Facebook argument erupt over the implications and receptions of Josef Kaplan’s book-length conceptual poem Kill List. Kaplan arranged simple lines listing poets as “rich” or “comfortable,” provoking a diverse mix of reactions. Intrigued by the list’s effect, John created some productive mischief. He fed a list of poets (from the Buffalo Electronic Poetry Center) into a randomizer that paired them with categories usually found on a coffee shop customer survey. The results, including “Hank Lazer is a somewhat unimportant poet / Ann Lauterbach is a somewhat important poet” are both hilarious and surprisingly affecting. The reactions (between Nov. 10 and 14) of some of the “Important” or “Unimportant” poets included perturbation (Kenneth Goldsmith and Christian Bök), amusement (Kaplan Harris), and confusion (Lisa Radon). John later added a subheading to explain the list’s playful intent, and tweeted to Amy King that he wanted to “mock dumb chattr re: poets’ rel. imprtnce.”

I am struck such swift and potent reactions to both of these online publications. Digital life can facilitate communities–as well as community imbroglios–by making communication within and between them almost instant.  Yet the existence of lists of poets matters: why do we pay such attention (when we could just scroll on by)?

In our data-obsessed and immediately accessed digital lives, I’m not surprised that some poets were irritated by how such lists reduce a poet’s ineffable poet-ness down to a single line & adjective.  But consider: the reception of the lists depends on whether we recognize the names through participating in various poetry communities.  It’s easy to get lost in such an environment as ours, where agreement on a single, definitive, national list of “important” American poets is impossible. Do we skim the lists, read them, critique them, question them, look for ourselves in them, and talktalktalk about them because we need them? Do lists help us find out where we are and where we belong?