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Clarity of Expression and Dirty Money in Poetry

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"I think poetry is the opposite of money, but money is something we might end up talking about - and since this is England - we shall probably discuss it sideways in terms of grants and awards. If I hold up a ten pound note and a poem and I burn one then the other, how do we feel?" - David Morley

This month, Alice Oswald and John Kinsella withdrew themselves from the TS Eliot Prize shortlist. With £15,000 and arguably greater prestige than any other British poetry accolade, dropping out was clearly not a decision taken lightly. Their reasoning? The funding behind the TS Eliot prize now comes from Aurum, a hedge-fund investment company, rather than the recently withdrawn Arts Council Funding that used to keep the Poetry Book Society afloat. To quote Oswald, "I think poetry should be questioning not endorsing such institutions.'

As is always the case when poetry manages to scandal its way into the broadsheets, the poets of London took to their blogs and Facebook walls to discuss the issue at length. Katy Evans-Bush brilliantly wrote it up as the genesis of the Occupy Poetry movement. Todd Swift, in usual devil's advocate form, suggested that all anti-capitalist poets should move to North Korea (then he thought better of it and removed the post). Oswald herself wrote for the Guardian that 'I hope my fellow poets will have different opinions and not be afraid to express them.'

This is the second time in the last six months that the British poetry framework has had its dirty laundry aired in the dailies. Last Summer, the Poetry Society had a mass exodus of trustees over the matter of the misallocation of Arts Council funding and the alleged bullying of an employee. As a result, the Poetry Society's continued public funding is still unsure and, from what I gather, morale at their head office suffered immeasurably.

At the heart of both situations are a set of assumptions about public and private money and the contrasting characters of both. The largest criticism of the Poetry Society's trustees was that they were using the society's funds to pay for expensive legal advice from a private firm; clean money floating towards the supposedly mendacious, muddy private sector.

On the flipside, the Poetry Book Society is now coming under criticism for finding financial support from a hedge-fund investor; dirty, mendacious private money slouches towards the clean fortress of integrity and non-capitalist values that is poetry.

But, short of writing a short biography of every penny's journey from the Royal Mint to the poet's pocket, this attitude is a very difficult one to see through to its logical conclusion. As has been iterated again and again in light of this recent poetry-spat, no money is truly 'clean', and to live, work, win financial prizes of any nature and sell a product (even a collection of poetry) in this country is to engage with capitalism on a very tangible level.

If we are to call foul-play at the capitalism of an Aurum funded TS Eliot prize, then surely we must denounce all of poetry's other pet plaudits. The Eric Gregory and Cholmonedy Awards are presented in Picadilly's Cavalry and Guard Club, funded through private donations. Should I have asked where Gregory got his money before I cashed the cheque? The Costa Book Awards are funded by a big-chain café - aren't they the ultimate emblem of capitalist sensibilities? Shall I pick the phone up now and berate Hugo Williams for accepting his Queen's Gold Medal for poetry?

Of course Oswald is calling for none of this - her intentions are creative, not destructive. Her recent actions, on a fundamental level, have served the functions of a well written poem and should be read as such. She has produced critical responses, complex interpretations, and has forced us to reconsider a once-familiar landscape with new scrutiny. As any great poet should, she has not given us answers but lead us towards the discussions that we need to have.

Around the Web

T S Eliot Prize - Poetry Book Society

Alice Oswald withdraws from TS Eliot prize in protest at sponsor ...

Poets drop out of T.S. Eliot Prize competition over politics - latimes.com

BBC News - John Kinsella withdraws from TS Eliot Poetry Prize