Alan Howarth, the Arts minister, was speaking at a reading in support of Oxford Poets, organised by the university's English faculty. He urged dons to undo the recent decision by OUP to sell off its poetry list.
Among the 26 poets being sold off are some of the best- known contemporary writers in Britain. They include Fleur Adcock, Peter Porter, Thomas Kinsella, Michael Donaghy, D J Enright, Alice Oswald, Jo Shapcott and Jamie Mc- Kendrick.
OUP is owned by Oxford University. It makes about pounds 6m for the university every year. The board of directors is composed of delegates from different faculties: literature, classics, history, chemistry, modern languages. The vice-chancellor of the university, John Lucas, is chairman of the delegates. OUP's chief executive, Henry Reece, has the title of secretary to the delegates.
Mr Howarth, who used to be an English teacher at Westminster School and left the Conservative Party to join Labour during the Major government, told his audience last night: "It may be said that it is not for the Government to tell OUP how to run its business ... But is this just a business decision? Is OUP just a business? Is there no public interest in their decision to discontinue publishing contemporary poetry?
"OUP is not merely a business. It is a department of the University of Oxford and has charitable status. It is part of a great university, which the Government supports financially and which exists to develop and transmit our intellectual culture."
He noted that OUP remained proud to publish the Oxford English Dictionary, but declared: "Poets, certainly no less than lexicographers, are shapers of the English language.
"If it is appropriate for the OUP to subsidise the dictionary, is it not equally appropriate to subsidise the poetry list - and at a small fraction of the cost?"
Continuing his attack, Mr Howarth deplored "the spectacle of the Press touting its poetry list for sale".
He said: "Has OUP not noticed that in this day and age we have moved on from the heresy that everything should be susceptible to market forces, that everything should be for sale?
"It is a perennial complaint by the English faculty that the barbarians are at the gate. Indeed they always are. But we don't expect the gatekeepers themselves, the custodians, to be barbarians. Nor, if they will be true to themselves and their tradition, are they.
"I very much hope that the delegates, having listened, will undo this decision."
Ruth Padel, the poet and former Oxford don who has campaigned for the OUP decision to be reversed, welcomed the minister's support.
She added: "The delegates could still reverse this decision by resigning in a bunch unless heads roll among the management of OUP."