Sunday, 4 November 2012

Where poetry is an inclusive art, by Andy Croft

I have recently returned from Paris, where I took part in the long-running International Poetry Biennale in Val-de-Marne - the only department in the Paris region still governed by the Communist Pat.
The presiding genius of the festival, which aims to democratise the writing and reading of poetry, is the poet Francis Combes. He's been responsible for putting poems on the Paris Metro and runs the radical publishing house De Temps Des Cerises.
Along with myself, this year's poets included Valerio Magrelli and Maria Grazia Calandrone from Italy, Florence Pazzottu and Gerard Mordillat from France and Greece's Yourgos Markopoulos, Dino Siotis and Thanasis Triaridis. These poets try to address the crisis in contemporary Europe with a passionate eloquence, biter wisdom and scathing irony.
How depressing then, to arrive back in Britain just in time for the announcement of this year's TS Eliot Prize shortlist. It's the usual carve-up between a small group of publishers - Picador (3), Faber (2), Jonathan Cape (2), Carcanet (2) and Seren (1). And its the usual dull Poetry Book Society (PBS) narrative of "major names" and "newcomers", alongside bookie's favourites, outsiders and dark-horses.
The fact that there are some excellent writers on this year's list - Deryn Rees-Jones, Simon Armitage and Kathleen Jamie - cannot disguise the intellectual narrowness of the whole enterprise.
Two of this year's judges are previous winners of the prize, five of the short-listed authors have been short-listed before and four have judged the prize in previous years. Six titles were chosen by the judges, the other four were PBS quarterly choices, themselves selected by the authors of previous PBS choices.
It's a ludicrous and unpleasant racket. But at least there is no public money involved any more. Having lost its Arts Council support, the PBS is now sponsored by an international investment firm. Appropriate perhaps for a literary prize named after TS Eliot, a banker, anti-semite, admirer of Mussolini, believer in the divine right of kings and opponent of the 1944 Education Act. The winner will be announced in January. I can't wait.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star. Andy Croft's latest book for Five Leaves is the novel-in-verse 1948.

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