Arts: Reading: Deleted poets society

Oxford Poets Freud Oxford
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The Independent Culture
AT A cafe-bar in a reconditioned church, a motley crew met to protest an act of vandalism across the road, where stands a publishing house unconvincingly disguised as an Oxford college. The principal conspirators gathered behind a barricade of Czech beer bottles in the gloom of the apse, and took turns to say their piece to a spotlit microphone where the altar used to be.

The rabble-rousers? Two dozen distinguished poets. The enemy? The Oxford University Press. And the cause? A management decision, taken in November last year, to junk the OUP's entire modern poetry list. The publisher of the world's most weighty dictionary says that it can no longer bear the annual cost of bringing out some eight or nine slim volumes of verse.

The outcast poets, and their many friends, begged to disagree. Fleur Adcock set the tone with a specially written piece of doggerel, "This is your publisher speaking". It began: "We're coming in with the bulldozers..." A petition was passed around as Jon Stallworthy - founder-editor of the Oxford Poets list - sermonised about the great betrayal. The assembly signed an oath condemning "an act of desecration against the humanity and literary traditions of Oxford University".

They applauded a procession of laureates-in-waiting - the piratical Charles Tomlinson, the Bismarckian James Fenton, the ever-startled Craig Raine, and even Tom Paulin, the heart-throb of late-night television. "Reds, addicts, all delinquents!" So went Basil Bunting's poem about poets, read by Sean O'Brien. More verse unfurled, some of it very fine. David Harsent offered a fragment called "Marriage" from his latest work, and also read a translation of the Bosnian poet Goran Simic, who e-mailed his solidarity from Toronto. But this was, first and foremost, a domestic evening, and its politics were narrowly focused.

Fittingly, the greatest round of applause went to an unpublished poet called Alan Howarth. He is now Minister for the Arts, but that didn't stop him from taking sides. He put the boot firmly into OUP's groin: "The custodians of the English language are abandoning those that help to shape it." The heavy hitters are coming out for the poets. Will OUP back down?

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