In praise of … impoverished poets
When mammon and the muse mix, the result – as the dispute at the Poetry Society shows – is fit for the pen of Pope or Swift
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 27 July 2011 23.03 BST
Where is Alexander Pope when you need him? The row which has led to the Arts Council suspending payments to the Poetry Society would be the perfect subject for one of his mock-heroic epics. Or Jonathan Swift, perhaps, who could attempt to untangle the battle between the Big Enders and the Little Enders. Certainly, there is the whiff of 18th-century literary score-settling in the conflict. If only the issue was one of rhyme versus blank verse or a ban on onomatopoeia – something that matters to poetry. In reality, the clash is one of personalities – the society's director fell out with the editor of its magazine – and the immediate cause was money. The irony is that the Arts Council created the crisis in the first place by increasing its grant to the society. Poets, who have never had money, were overwhelmed by the largesse. The society's director wanted to spend it on education; the magazine editor preferred to support established poets. Things fell apart, the centre could not hold, anarchy was loosed upon this little world, and the poet-bureaucrats have now slouched home to Bethnal Green. TS Eliot may originally have been a banker, but as a general rule mammon and the muse do not mix. Poets are impoverished outsiders; poetry derives from longing, not fulfilment. The Arts Council hopes the formation of a new board at the Poetry Society will mark a fresh start for the "poetry sector". This clunky language does not bode well. No self-respecting poet would be seen dead in the poetry sector.