Non-Poetry at Poetry London

Six years ago a leading poetry publisher asked me if any of the editors ‘owned’ Poetry London. At the time I was taken aback by the question, which felt somehow intrusive and irrelevant. Since then events have intervened, marking the deepest recession the UK has experienced in recent times; and now the question feels very much to the point. How can Poetry London(compare PN Review or Poetry Review) stand on its own two feet without the backing of any owner, publishing house, society or HE institution? Asking Poetry London about financial support is like asking a fish about water at a time of drought. We swim alone, dependent for our survival on Arts Council England. And we are very small fish indeed. Of the 664 National Portfolio Organisations that ACE supports, poetry represents only 2%. In a far-sighted move and with our best interests at heart, ACE granted us, as part of a consortium with Modern Poetry in Translation and The Poetry Translation Centre, an additional sum (greater than our annual allocation), the purpose of which was to train us to become fundraisers ourselves. Was this the writing on the wall?

Recently Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications, and the Creative Industries, reported that the Conservatives had ‘no plans’ to abolish the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, but warned that cuts would fall on those arts organisations with the least ‘impact’. We can’t help wondering whether the very idea of a publicly funded poetry magazine relies on a belief in a scale of state spending capable of surviving the £30bn cuts planned after the election.

As the Arts Council itself is put under increasing pressure, its goals have had to align themselves more closely with government policy: social inclusion, economic growth, and more recently, national identity. Robert Hewison’s Cultural Capital: the rise and fall of creative Britain’, published last year, is a fascinating account of these complex and interlocking interests, based as it is on the ‘grey’ literature of think tank reports, policy documents, quotas, mission statements, and political speeches.

Targets, SMART charts (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Time-bound), PEST risk assessments (Political, Economic, Sociological, Technological) are all part of the managerial language ACE has evolved to demonstrate to the Treasury that art can show a return to justify the public money being invested. In filling out increasingly demanding submissions and reports, Poetry London has become aware of a subtle shift of emphasis. While we still feel that ACE strongly supports our aims, on paper it’s the other way round. Poetry London’s role is to help ACE fulfil its own goals and priorities.

David Constantine, in the timely essay in this issue on the ‘office’ of poetry, writes: I’ve come to believe that the very necessary co-existence of poetry and politics will always be polemical; on no account must they ever make peace with each other.

In that spirit Poetry London turns once again to William Blake (also quoted by Constantine): Labour well the Minute Particulars… for Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organised Particulars/ And not in the generalising Demonstrations of the Rational Power.

Poetry itself could hardly be a smaller Particular as it is whirled around within the political maelstrom. But if we followed Blake’s advice and allowed that Minute Particular, poetry, to replace such facile, generalising phrases as ‘the arts’ or ‘culture’, we might have heard Maria Miller saying in a defining policy speech when she took office: Poetry cannot be seen in isolation at a time of unprecedented economic challenge. I know this will not be to everyone’s taste; some simply want money and silence from Government, but in an age of austerity, when times are tough and money is tight, our focus must be on poetry’s economic impact.

I am reminded of lines from William Carlos Williams:

It is difficult 

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day 

for lack

of what is found there.

 (656)

 

Martha Kapos, Poetry Co-editor