Before we formally congratulate the Scarriet Sweet 16 poets of 2012, who, pound for pound, are probably the most entertaining poets alive today, the poets least likely to bore you, the poets who simply have a high batting average of poems sure to interest, amuse, or move the common reader—before we congratulate them, we should address the burning issue which always seems to loom over this enterprise: we refer to the poets and readers of poetry who balk at the idea of poetry used as fodder for competition.
First, we would say the competition is the fodder, not the poetry. The ancient Greeks, who had drama competitions in front of crowds, understood this.
The poetry contest, of which distinguished U.S. poets have so long been a part, is competitive—but since the process of picking winners is shrouded in secrecy, the process does not offend.
But there is absolutely no difference between what Scarriet does with March Madness and what the more distinguished elements of po-biz do with their contests and prizes.
The reason competition offends probably has to do with sex. Sex is all about ‘who is hotter,’ whereas love entails ‘being loved forever for who I am.’ The former creates anxiety, the latter comfort. Love rules morals. All literature has a moral basis. These unspoken laws are surely the underpinning to the disquiet and protest which greets Scarriet’s attempt to toss poems onto a horse track.
Judgment, or the Critical Faculty, ride the horses, however. “Judge not” is a moral injunction, not a literary one. To write is to get on a horse.
Love cannot be escaped when we make moral judgments—but poems are not moral in the same way people are. We hope the morals of the people are in the poems. Morals, however, do not make us love poems as poems—which exist apart from human moral issues, simply because they are poems, not people. This does not mean that poems are not moral, or that poems camot create a moral universe; what it means is that poems themselves are immune to moral concerns. The decree against poems competing arises from the mistaken idea that poems are morally attached to their authors—they are not; and if they are good poems, this is especially true. The moral person makes the moral poem, but something happens when the moral travels from the person to the poem—it transforms into something which is no longer moral, even though morals was the impetus. The objection to poems competing assumes poems are continually creating the moral worlds of their authors in such a manner that they cannot be interrupted from that task, ever. Which is pure folly. Those who are really moral persons do not rely heavily on moral attachments between poem and person. This is my poem, do not touch it! is the sentiment of the moralist who will never write a good poem in the first place.
There are many people who cannot reconcile the fact that morals are both oppressive and good. But here’s the happy thing about poems. The good should be present in the person writing the poem, even to an oppressive degree, but once the poem comes into existence, this moral creation, because it is a poem, escapes the oppressive aspect of morals entirely while still being moral—that is, written by a moral person. Art is the means by which the moral escapes its oppressive character.
Judging art is not a moral act, but an entirely free act; judging cannot escape competition; judging cannot escape the horse race, for comparison is always at the heart of the knowing that is judging. Comparison cannot escape competition. The horses cannot stand still while we judge.
Here they are, most from the Dove anthology, and all living:
EAST: Ben Mazer, Billy Collins, Franz Wright, Mary Oliver,
MIDWEST/SOUTH: Rita Dove, Derek Walcott, W.S. Merwin, Patricia Smith
NORTH: Phil Levine, Richard Wilbur, Stephen Dunn, Louise Gluck
WEST: Sharon Olds, Matthew Dickman, Heather McHugh, Marilyn Chin
Congratulations to the winners!