1. Be number 109.1
2. Don’t submit your manuscript in 1943.2
3. Do submit your manuscript in 1920, 1921, 1922, or 1923.3
4. Be a man.4
5. Change your name to John.5
6. If you don’t like the name John, consider any name that begins with the letter J.6
7. Also don’t submit your manuscript in 1950, 1955, 1966.7
8. Consider adding the name of a color to your title, but choose wisely.8
9. Don’t title your manuscript Poems.9
10. Embrace the power of your entire name, maybe.10
11. When deciding between beginning your title with the definite or indefinite article, definitely side with the definite.11
12. Give nature a chance.12
13. Be concise.13
2 They didn’t award the prize in 1943. There’s a gap between the 1942 winning manuscript, For My People by Margaret Walker, and the 1944 winner, Love Letters from an Impossible Land by William Meredith.
5 Four, or 3.7% of the winners of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition have the first name John, a larger percentage than any other same-first-name group. Try to match the following Johns with the titles of their winning manuscripts: John C. Farrar (1919), John Ashbery (1956), John Hollander (1958), John Bensko (1981); A Crackling of Thorns, Some Trees, Green Soldiers, Forgotten Shrines.
6 A whopping seventeen winners, or 15.6%, have first names that begin with the letter J. In addition to the Johns, other past winners whose first names begin with J include the following: James Agee (1934), Joy Davidman (1938), Jeremy Ingalls (1941), Joan Murray (1947), James Wright (1957), Jack Gilbert (1962), Jean Valentine (1965), James Tate (1967), Judith Johnson (1969), Julie Agoos (1987), Jody Gladding (1993), Jay Hopler (2006), and Jessica Fisher (2007). It’s important to note here also that twice (1965-1967, 2006-2007) first-name-begins-with-J winners have been named in consecutive years. (If 1965 and 1967 don’t sound “consecutive,” see the next item on the list).
8 The color green has won three times, more than any other color, all three of which wins were also submitted by J’s (James Wright went with The Green Wall, John Bensko Green Soldiers, and Jay Hopler Green Squall), but there are also five other winning colors, including white’s consecutive wins (Thomas Caldecott Chubb for The White God and Other Poems in 1920 and Harold Vinal for White April in 1921), gold’s dual win in 1921 (Hervery Allen Wampum and Old Gold, Oscar Williams Golden Darkness), and silver’s lone win (Marion M. Boyd’s Silver Wands in 1923). This is not to mention that the predominant color of winning titles also serves as current winner’s surname (Eryn Green, 2013).
10 The middle name can be embraced through the use of initial or the full name. All said, 22.4% of winners used either a middle initial or a full middle name; however seventeen of the twenty-three who did won before 1932. After 1932, the prize experiences serious middle-name drought. It goes thirteen years, until Charles E. Butler wins in 1945, without so much as an initial. Then it’s seven years before W.S. Merwin in 1952, seventeen more before Judith Johnson Sherwin (two J’s!) in 1969, an interval of eleven getting to William Virgil Davis in 1980, a shorter span until Brigit Pegeen Kelly in 1988, even shorter until Christiane Jacox Kyle in 1991, and an alarming twenty-two until Eduardo C. Corral revives the practice in 2012.
11 As the first word of title, “The” has won fourteen times—The Tempting (1919), The Last Lutanist (1923), The Dark Hills Under (1933), The Deer Come Down (1936), The Gardener Mind (1937), The Connecticut River and Other Poems (1939), The Metaphysical Sword (1941), The Grasshopper’s Man and Other Poems (1949), The Green Wall (1957), The Breaking of the Day (1964), The Lost Pilot (1967), Gathering the Tribes (1976), The Difference Between Night and Day (1978), The Evolution of Flightless Birds (1984), The Earth in the Attic (2008)— or 13.1% of total wins, while “a” has won only six times—A Stranger Afraid (1928), A Beginning (1948), A Change of World (1951), A Mask for Janus (1952), A Crackling of Thorns (1958)— or 5.6% of the total wins.
12 Thirty winning manuscripts take their titles from the natural world—Four Gardens (1920), Spires and Poplars (1920), Wild Geese (1921), Horizons (1921), Hidden Waters (1922), Hemlock Wall (1929), Worn Earth (1932), The Deer Come Down (1936), The Connecticut River and Other Poems (1939), Cut is the Branch (1945), An Armada of Thirty Whales (1954), Some Trees (1956), A Crackling of Thorns (1958), Manhattan Pastures (1963), Threats Instead of Trees (1974), Snow on Snow (1975), The Evolution of the Flightless Bird (1984), Navigable Waterways (1985), Above the Land (1987), Out of the Woods (1989), Hermit with Landscape (1990), Bears Dancing in the Northern Air (1991), My Shining Archipelago (1997), Shells (1999), Green Squall (2006), The Earth in the Attic (2008), It is Daylight (2009), Slow Lightning (2012)—that’s 28.0%, and that’s not including another nine winning titles that suggest on the natural world—White April (1922), Half-Light and Overture (1929), Theory of Flight (1935), The Gardener Mind (1937), The Grasshopper’s Man and Other Poems (1949), The Breaking of the Day (1964), Field Guide (1973), The Difference Between Night and Day (1978), Westerly (2013)—for a total of thirty-nine natural-world-related winners, or 36.4% (over one third!) of the total winners. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I omitted the bizarre Coach into Pumpkin (1925) and Lugging Vegetables o Nantucket (1971) because, despite the inclusion of food, which I suppose is natural, they just didn’t seem to fit here. Although a natural myth, Ultima Thule (2000) was left out here due its being a myth.
13 Essentially, you need to keep your title under seven words. The longest title of any winning manuscript is six words. That position is shared by seven winners (The White God and Other Poems (1920), The Connecticut River and Other Poems (1939), Letters from an Impossible Land (1944), The Grasshopper’s Man and Other Poems (1949), The Difference Between Night and Day (1978), The Evolution of the Flightless Bird (1984), Bears Dancing in the Northern Air (1991)). Thirteen winning titles have been kept to one word (Horizons (1921), Attitudes (1922), Battle-Retrospect (1923), Mosaics (1923), Quest (1926), Virtuosa (1926), Poems (1946), Poems (1961), Obscenities (1972), Shells (199), Discography (2002), Crush (2005), Frail-Craft (2007), Juvenilia (2010), Westerly (2013), but the mean for all titles is 2.89 words (and the mode is 2), so shooting for a two-word title is your best bet. There are thirty-four two-word winners, or 31.8%: The Tempting (1919), Forgotten Shrines (1919), Four Gardens (1920), Wild Geese (1921), Golden Darkness (1921), White April (1922), Hidden Waters (1922), Silver Wands (1923), High Passage (1926), Dark Pavilion (1927), Hemlock Wall (1929), Dark Certainty (1931), Worn Earth (1932), Family Circle (1946), A Beginning (1948), Some Trees (1956), Bone Thoughts (1960), Manhattan Pastures (1963), Dream Barker (1965), Uranium Poems (1969), Collecting Evidence (1970), Field Guide (1973), Natural Histories (1979), Green Soldiers (1981), Icehouse Lights (1982), Picture Bride (1983), Navigable Waterways (1985), Stone Crop (1993), Ultima Thule (2000), Famous Americans (2003), The Cuckoo (2004), Green Squall (2006), Radial Symmetry (2011), Slow Lightning (2012).
Thomas Cook is the author of Monster: A Glottochronology (w/ Tyler Flynn Dorholt, Alice Blue Books), and his essays have appeared recently in Passages North and Hobart. He edits Tammy and lives in Massachusetts.