Rare Gestures: Oswald and Kinsella

The Recusant notes with cautious optimism the principled gestures of poets Alice Oswald and self-proclaimed ‘anti-capitalist’ John Kinsella in withdrawing their shortlisted collections from this year’s T.S. Eliot Prize in protest against the Poetry Book Society’s decision to accept patronage from a Hedge Fund company. Ostensibly, the PBS has pleaded that it had little ‘choice’ in taking up the first funding offer forthcoming since it was unceremoniously disinvested in by the Arts Council. It seems that instead of opting for a period of self-reflection, of ‘time out’ to consider any possible shortcomings in its own approach to contemporary poetry promotion that might have in some way influenced ACE’s withdrawing of funds, the PBS has rushed to snap up the first pennies thrown at it by a private sector body seeking to invest in some cultural capital. Many organisations in similar dire straits would have undoubtedly done the same and it is easy to leap to a moral high ground on such matters.

Nevertheless, there are those who would argue that the T.S. Eliot Prize could do with something of a rest for a couple of years in order to finally shake off the rather interminable 'poet-celeb' bug it’s been suffering from for some years now; the predictability of its annual shortlists, almost always dominated by the same rota of ‘names’ and axis of promotionally rapacious ‘top’ imprints, has practically entered the collective consciousness of the wider poetry scene as a rubber-stamping tradition emasculated of critical distinction – rather like the annual ermine-fawning and -donning Honours List. To be particularly purist, in the establishment-sceptic sense, there are those who would, therefore, have respected Oswald’s and Kinsella’s gestures even more so had they withdrawn their candidatures from the Prize prior to the PBS’s floating on the markets, and on the more fundamental principle that the Eliot's essential purpose of recognising the most distinctive and accomplished poetry collections of each year, regardless of pre-established reputations, has for some time now been largely abandoned in favour of an extended game of pass-the-parcel among a closely orbiting and self-perpetuating private members’ club. Of course now and then, for verisimilitude’s sake, an odd rogue ‘newcomer’ or two will slip through into the shortlist, but even on such occasions it feels somehow stage-managed, and tokenistic. This is quite simply because it doesn’t happen anywhere frequently enough to convince of any sincere vein of poetic curiosity regards the vast and varied output of the lower profile smaller presses.

The essential point here is that the PBS’s frantic grasping at the first funding opportunity that comes its way, and the rather toxic scent of ethical compromise detected in this move by Oswald and Kinsella, is, to many on the blasted fringes of the poetry mainstream, hardly much of a shocker. Sanitised as we are to the impish narcissism of 'glitterati' parlour games that form themselves into habits behind thin veils of ‘inclusiveness’, it seems only par for the course that one of the most prominent promotional bodies should opt for financial expediency over ethic; indeed, going by established mainstream standards, few would even believe any more that a prevailing lip-service liberalness currently fashionable in established circles equates with the more capitalist-sceptic ethics shared by the majority of materially embattled poets. Ever the microcosmic mirror of contemporary establishment rust, the upper echelons of the British poetry scene have excelled over the past couple of years with internecine scandal after scandal, whether it be the race for the Oxford Poetry Professorship, or the cloudy intrigues at The Poetry Society’s Betterton Street bunker, all reported punctually by the Guardian’s lit-tippling espionage arm for its own distinctly middle-class titillation; scandals, or ‘tittle-tattle’ that have in the main – and in the spirit of unapologetic ethical compromise which typifies the contemporary British establishment’s collective psyche, its deconstructive reinterpretation of what used to be more puritanically termed ‘corruption’ (key symptoms of which are ‘wilful blindness’ and seeming inability to morally objectify one’s own behaviour) – only boosted their culprits’ literary profiles and fortunes. But capitalist culture has ever elevated the cad over the scrupulous, so again, no surprise there.

The only real surprise therefore in all this is an extremely rare - hence newsworthy - gesture of principle and solidarity expressed by two high profile poets, one of whom, Oswald, has previously been a recipient of the Eliot, and both of whom have enjoyed their fair share of benefits as members of the poetry establishment over the years: published by prestigious imprints, with all the knock-on nominations and promotions that go with that. But this is not to underestimate the at least surface-level importance of their gestures in withdrawing from the Eliot; moreover, their very own well-established credentials, while giving them a certain leverage which lesser known poets simply wouldn’t have (and which would plunge them into even more terminal obscurity than they’re already in if they did the same), as well as subsequent amply thrust media opportunities through which to extensively broadcast said principled gestures, both poets have to some significant extent stuck their necks out among their more quiescent peers, but most importantly in the process, made a credible statement against the encroaching prospect of the symbolic and literal capitalisation of the arts sector by unaccountable private bodies – and at this time of shrinking states and demonised public sectors, that can only be something to the common good.

As for their detractors, well, what can one say? The arguments put forward hastily by one or two notable beneficiaries of the poetry status quo have been effortlessly risible, ethically complacent, arrogant and self-serving, awash with such achingly transparent spin and compromised assetions of ‘truths’ that practically no one bar those orators and their fellow poet-beneficiaries who share the same vested interests will take a blind bit of notice; or, if they do, will come to the same judgement as this one. It is truly dispiriting to find just how utterly complicit and self-interested some respected poets can be regarding the perpetuation of a wilfully myopic prize culture from which pretty much only they themselves actually benefit – not the majority of practising poets, nor the variety-starved reading public. Highfalutin and hyperbolic claims that prizes such as the Eliot are constitutionally programmed to automatically identify ‘the best’ in contemporary poetry each year, as if by some sort of literarily infallible antennae which just happens to practically always hone in on that produced by the most well-established and promoted ‘names’ published by the highest profile imprints, stretches beyond any reasonable suspension of disbelief and is fast bordering on the absurd; or more poignantly, and in reflection of our current Cabinet of moral charlatans, the spontaneously satirical.

But apart from the 'prestige-grab' that high profile prizes such as the Eliot (and Forward) symbolise, there is too the very real material dynamic that plays its part: prizes provide much-needed financial leverage for recipients, so serve not only to promote their reputations but also to bolster their economic circumstances - and more often than not these roll over through the proverbial domino effect of knock-on benefits such as further nominations, plaudits and media opportunities, not to mention publishing contracts with top imprints practically for perpetuity. The entire prize mechanism is designed to engineer a kind of poetry 'bourgeoisie', a super-pitch 1% elite separated from the 'unwashed' 99%, that is itself stratified: from the more impoverished, circumstantially marginalised 'unconnected' strata up through the various of layers of competitive aspiration. Such stratifications are, again, a fairly typical and inescapable feature of such a class-ridden, high capitalist society as ours. But it's important for us not to overlook the very real material and economic aspects at work through the prize culture, and that an emerging breed of 'multi-prize' recipients are being effectively subsidised by the literary establishment, arguably at the expense of far more needy poets who are consigned to relative poverty due more so to poverty of 'connections' than talent. Apparently, as well, all candidates for the Eliot automatically receive a consolation prize of £1,000 just for being shortlisted. So poetry prizes don't only pay reputational dividends, they also pay financial ones, even if relatively diminutive compared to those showered on prose practitioners.

The Recusant anticipates a far distant time when reputations are no more part-built on prize shortlists, but on the actual poetry produced by poets, irrespective of the ‘name’ or imprint attached to it; it really is about time that the major poetry prizes took some time out for a couple of years to pause and reflect on what exactly they exist to do, to soak up a bit of the humility generated by national austerity, and to start with a fresh sheet of priorities: number one, to stop treating the nation’s un-‘anointed’ poet outlanders with indifference, even contempt; and number two, to stop treating all of us, poets and readers alike, as if we’re all idiots. That would be a good start.

Alan Morrison