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UK Arts Council cuts affect poetry

1 November 2010

So what's the situation with the UK's small funded literature sector in the light of the enormous cuts which were announced last week by the new coalition government?

Literature is very much the poor relation when it comes to Arts Council funding, with theatre, music and art all taking very much larger slices of the pie. Arguing, quite reasonably, that literary fiction is quite well provided for by commercial publishing houses, most of the literature money is spent on poetry, with a small amount going to pay for the publication of literary translations and some to programmes to support and develop writers.

There are very mixed views about the way the money is spent. Poetry would not exist on any scale unless it was funded and also supported by big publishing groups such as Random House (Jonathan Cape and Chatto & Windus) and Macmillan (the Picador list). Faber continues to see poetry as central to its publishing remit. The big funded houses, Bloodaxe and Carcanet, publish a large number of poetry titles, including quite a few debut collections, and then there are the smaller funded publishers who contribute to the total.

So the fact is that British poets owe a lot to state support when it comes to their chances of getting published, although the same cannot be said of literary novels. Most people think this is fair because literary novels can be published successfully in a commercial way. There is a big enough market out there and a number of prizes such as the Booker and Orange, which raise the profile of individual titles and help to create interest amongst readers. The hugely successful reading groups are part of this and reading 'literary' novels is quite fashionable, in the UK at least.

Poets have benefited from the increase in readings and festivals and the audience for poets reading or performing their own work. But it's still not easy to sell poetry on any scale unless it's the work of a big name. The Poetry Book SocietySpecialist book club founded by T S Eliot in 1953, which aims to offer the best new poetry published in the UK and Ireland. Members buy at 25% discount. The PBS has a handsome new website at works to get the best new poetry to readers, but they reach a specific market and it's difficult to grow that. Poetry prizes such as the Forward and the T S Eliot Prize (the shortlist for which was announced last week) do help to build the careers of poets and get their work to readers, but there are still many people who never read poetry and many others who are not interested in the latest new work.

So, should poetry be funded by the government? Only if you think that it is worthwhile, but if you do think this then the funding is essential to give new poets a chance and to make sure that poetry is published and made available to readers.

The Poetry Book Society

The T S Eliot Prize

The Forward Prizes