Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Do We Need the TS Eliot Prize?

I’ve been watching the furore around the TS Eliot Prize develop and have been wondering what’s it’s all really about. The administration of the prize is funded by Aurum (it used to be funded by the Poetry Book Society, whose arts council funding was abolished earlier this year), an investment company which specialises in hedge funds. Two shortlisted poets have pulled out in protest: first to go was Alice Oswald, closely followed by John Kinsella. The other eight nominees have stayed in.

Alice Oswald gave her views here in The Guardian. Gillian Clarke, head of the panel of judges, responded. John Kinsella released a manifesto in the New Statesman to outline his own position. In the Independent, David Lister attacked those who had pulled out (in what I'd regard as a rather bad tempered article).

Now, I am no fan of the banks or investment companies or hedge funds, particularly those individuals and groups whose recklessness, greed, and desire to win bonuses by meeting short-term targets have largely caused the current crisis, which we are now all paying for. So my instinct is to support the two poets who have pulled out, and I can understand their reasons for doing so. However, I am equally sure that poets such as Carol Ann Duffy and Sean O’Brien will feel similarly to me about the crisis and yet don’t feel any need to pull out of the TS Eliot Prize. I can understand their reasons too (of course, I am guessing those reasons).

I don’t care about the TS Eliot Prize, and my support (or lack of it) will make no difference to anyone. It’s easy to be a cheerleader for one side or another and quite another thing to play for real. Not that I am suggesting anyone is “playing” here, and those who accuse Oswald and Kinsella of pulling out simply to create publicity for themselves and their books are, frankly, talking bollocks. Some people do still have principles, y'know! Equally, those who say Aurum’s money is inherently “dirty” better remove all their money from their personal current accounts right now. All banks deal in dirty money, some to an alarming degree.

Some commentators have asked who would fund poetry if the financial sector walked away (tacitly criticizing Oswald and Kinsella for putting such funding at risk). I’d ask, in reply: would we miss the TS Eliot Prize if it weren’t there? Do we need a prize propped up by private funds now that a government hostile to poetry (hostile to thought of any kind, it seems to me) has pulled the plug? I think most people, including most poets and readers, wouldn’t miss it in the slightest. It does, of course, mean a nice surprise and a £15,000 payout for one lucky poet, a rare moment of recognition – but, in years to come, no one will miss it if it doesn’t exist, and we may even have a healthier poetry scene as a result.

I was struck (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) by Gillian Clarke’s insistence that the TS Eliot shortlist represents the 10 best books published this year. That is also complete bollocks. I really like some of the books, and I’m sure advocates could be found for every one of them, but the choices represent such a small range of titles and publishers that it’s impossible to take her statement seriously.

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