‘And Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While Calypso’s singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers.’
– Bob Dylan ‘Desolation Row’
The idea of poets fighting amongst one another is affectionately ingrained in Western culture. We recall the rivalries between the great Romantics, Alexander Pope’s satirical epic ‘The Dunciad’, and the tense relationships between Modernism’s finest.
Nevertheless, news that the century-old Poetry Society’s general meeting has ended in a motion of no confidence, passed 302 to 69, and the voluntary resignation of its Board of Trustees, has been met with surprise and indignation by thousands of loyal followers.
The meeting was supposed to address the dysfunctional relationship between society director Judith Palmer, and Poetry Review (a Poetry Society publication) editor Fiona Sampson. The Trustees’ decision – that Palmer work from home and report directly to them – was met with her resignation, and she was followed by a stream of high-profile figures, including Costa prize-winner Jo Shapcott.
Typically, rival poets are brilliant individuals set apart by their contrasting styles, but unfortunately the Poetry Society’s implosion has been considerably less romantic. Society Trustees have spent an estimated £24,000 in legal fees, and the Arts Council has pledged to withhold the Society’s grant until it gets its house in order.
English poetry has, to use a well-worn cliché, shot itself in the foot. The 2011 summer Poetry Review was entitled ‘The New Political Poetry’, and contained a selection of diverse and insightful poems focusing on the state of twenty-first century society. Yet following its publication, the Poetry Society itself seems to have descended into a political, legal and thoroughly un-poetic mess.
Whilst followers pay £40 for an annual membership, the Society has squandered one fifth of its reserves on legal fees, and has lost a selection of its most influential associates. The Board of Trustees has agreed to step down in September, but one has to think that it’s going to take considerably longer for the Society’s coffers, and reputation, to recover.
At its roots the Poetry Society remains a fantastic source of contemporary literature, and one of England’s primary avenues into the poetic world. Though it has debased itself, and disappointed its readers, we can only hope that whatever reforms occur it retains this core, and continues to provide excellent poetry at a reasonable price.
(Creative Editor 2011-12)