POETRY / Looking for financial inspiration: Kevin Jackson reports on the threat to one of the country's 'most important' literary journals

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The Independent Culture
IN HIS survey of contemporary British poetry, Under Briggflatts (1989), the poet and critic Donald Davie proposed that 'the most important literary magazine in Britain over the last 30 years' was not one of the more obvious and well-known titles such as The Review, the Times Literary Supplement or the London Review of Books but a relatively obscure journal: Agenda, edited by William Cookson. Professor Davie admitted that many people would doubtless regard his verdict as surprising, even extragavant, especially if the word 'most important' were taken to mean 'most influential'.

He went on to justify his claim, however, by pointing out that Agenda had long been the champion - in certain cases the lonely champion - of some of the outstanding poets, novelists and critics of the century: David Jones, Hugh MacDiarmid, Wyndham Lewis, Basil Bunting, Louis Zukovsky and so on. Agenda had, he maintained, 'consistently published documents, both primary and secondary, such as no student of 20th-century poetry can afford to ignore'. In the light of such a handsome tribute, it is not hard to understand why Professor Davie has been made so angry by a recent decision of the Arts Council's Literature Panel to withdraw funding from Agenda - a 'disastrous' decision, he calls it, which was all the more galling to Davie because he had originally been a member of the working party set up to advise on the subsidies for magazines. 'This is a light- hearted severing of the last tie that we have with the heroic age of Modernism,' Davie says. 'The magazine came into being in the 1950s as the result of an extraordinary collaboration between William Cookson, who was a 16- year-old schoolboy, and the veteran but unbowed poet Ezra Pound. It is therefore the only magazine in this country which has Ezra Pound's imprimatur, and whether you regard Pound's approval favourably or suspiciously, the fact of his originating patronage cannot be denied.'

Alastair Niven, the Arts Council's Literature Director, agrees that Agenda has enjoyed an unusually distinguished history, but stands by the Literature Panel's conclusions. 'It's been a difficult, uncomfortable decision which no one has been happy to take. There's a desperate shortage of money for literary magazines, and we felt that we had to be sure it was being put to the best use. Agenda is a respected journal, with an important niche in the poetry world, but there was a feeling that it was editorially looking rather tired. In other words, you might say that though it is an important corner of the poetry world, it is only a corner. It has been very loyal to certain older poets, and not tended to recognise enough the contributions of newer generations.'

Even some of Agenda's supporters will freely concede that the magazine is unfashionable, but they believe it to be, as the critic Neil Powell wrote in the latest edition of Poetry Review (itself a competitor for Arts Council funds), 'old-fashioned in the best sense', and reminiscent of 'a time when shoe-string editors with intelligently uncommitted tastes could produce an unhyped publication in the hope that it would find its audience.'

Davie puts the same case in still stronger terms: 'It is as if the mere continuity and consistency of the magazine is being made to stand to its discredit, and as if the magazine were held not to be sufficiently aware of new developments. I think that it is aware, and chooses to ignore them, justly. As to the accusations of tiredness, it seems to me that although the magazine did go through a slackish period several years ago, the last two issues, on Geoffrey Hill and the Scottish poet Tom Scott, have been among the best that Cookson has ever done.'

The removal of Arts Council money after 27 years of subsidy poses, to say the least, a substantial threat to Agenda's chances of survival. Though, as Mr Niven says, there is some chance that 'our funding policy on Agenda might be reconsidered in three years' time', William Cookson clearly will be hard pressed to find other sources of support, since the magazine seldom sells more than 2,000 copies per issue. But he is determined that his magazine will continue, and has initiated a financial rescue plan, calling in the help of Lord Gowrie, who edited an issue of Agenda on American poetry some years ago and has now joined the board of trustees. T S Eliot's widow, Mrs Valerie Eliot, has sent what Cookson describes as a 'generous cheque', and he is now about half- way towards reaching the sum of pounds 13,000 he requires to publish the magazine for another year.

Mr Cookson is optimistic about Agenda's future: he already has plans for special issues on German poetry and Irish writing, and is editing an anthology of the best of Agenda which will be published by Carcanet Press in 1994. He is also keen to stress that he continues to be grateful for the Arts Council's support over the last few decades. Whether or not Agenda manages to ride out the immediate troubles, however, there is little doubt that its founding spirit, Ezra Pound, would have found it grimly apt that his British offspring should be suffering from these money problems. Pound launched the Modernist movement in literature via the pages of small- circulation magazines much like Agenda; he also, for good and ill, put questions about the relationship between economics and the arts at the centre of his life's work, The Cantos. Inspired artists, Pound held, need inspired patrons.

'Agenda' is avilable from 5 Cranbourne Court, Albert Bridge Road, London SW11 4PE.