5 Jun 2011

Carol Ann Duffy protests over Poetry Book Society cuts

The poet laureate says the decision to cut all public funding to the Poetry Book Society is disastrous. But are these traditional institutions still neccessary or is the art simply evolving?

It’s a powerful message from the nation’s most celebrated poet. And behind it is the anger Carol Ann Duffy feels at the removal of all public funding for several publishers – and the Poetry Book Society, a members organisation founded by TS Eliot in 1953.

The Poet Laureate says she is “dumbfounded” and feels a kind of grief at the decision to cut the funding:

“If you take the PBS (Poetry Book Society) it’s one of great cathedrals of poetry world. It’s only little, grant of just over £100K a year. But its impact, influence, the affection in which it’s held in poetry world between readers, poets and schools is huge.

“And of course PBS administers TS Eliot prize, which is World Cup in poetry.”

Carol Ann Duffy performed A Cut Back at a gala event to raise money for the society.

Most poets have a day job, earn very little from their second career and are only able to publish at all thanks to the delicately balanced infrastructure behind British poetry. Their worry is that if you take away some of the key pillars of this infrastructure, the whole set-up will crumble.

What's gone wrong with the PBS?
"So many of us come back to poetry time and time again in life - during periods of difficulty or moments of great joy. What wedding would be complete without the reading of a love poem for example? And how much better is it to wallow in self-pity in the company of a good poem than it is just on our own?

So what's gone wrong for the PBS? And why aren't more lovers of poetry in Britain connecting with the society?"

Matthew Cain blogs on Why British poetry needs looking after

But will it? One young poet who hasn’t benefitted from any of the threatened organisations is Kate Tempest.

Tempest says she fell in love with poetry through rap and hip hop, the PBS had bypassed her entirely.

“I’ve got no idea what it is. I’ve never heard of it. Sorry. It’s not relevant to me or what I’m doing, although not to dismiss it, it’s just not on my radar.”

The Arts Council defended their decision saying that the have to respond to a changing world, Antonia Byatt of the Arts Council England said:

“We funded a mix of making sure that really excellent poets get published, making sure that organisations who develop audiences for future get funded, making sure that we’re helping young people be inspired by poetry.”

So in this new world, is there any place for some of the older poetry institutions?

George Szirtes, the President of the PBS said they were in the “business of broadening access”.

“It’s an interesting transitional period. We’re in between books, ebooks and poetry on website. PBS was in process of extending website when they cut us off.”

To Carol Ann Duffy, the PBS is as vital to Britain’s art as the new poets emerging on the scene:

“I think we need to keep our old poetry institutions as well as investing in new ones. It’s not either or for me. It’s the new, the young, the new performance poets but it’s also the PBS.”

The future of the Poetry Book Society is still uncertain. But perhaps this uncertainty might make people think again about poetry and rediscover why it’s important. And in the process re-invigorate our national art.