Poets' angel is a man of plain words

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The Independent Online
WILLIAM SIEGHART seems an unlikely hero for British poets. The fast-talking London businessman, whose pounds 10,000 prize for the best new work by leading and emerging poets will be awarded tomorrow, derives his wealth from the publication of 'idiot guides' to modern commerce and technology, rendering in simple terms the jargon of computer instructions and bank pamphlets.

Having demystified the microchip, Sieghart has set out to demystify the Muse. This, he says, is behind his sponsorship of the prize. Three winners have been selected by a panel of literati (Stephen Spender, Margaret Drabble, Roger McGough, John Bayley and Mick Imlah).

The prize is a resurrection of the Guinness award for poetry which ended in 1961. Sieghart believes the popular appetite for poetry waned in the Sixties through pop music and the 'passive entertainment' of television. 'Now there is a reaction. In a time of poverty, sexual abuse and Aids, people want hard truths spoken plainly. The real thought behind the Forward Poetry Prize is to bring poetry out of 'Poetry Corner'; to make people feel they can buy an anthology, find a poet who makes them think about something, and then buy his or her works.'

Among the publications of his Soho publishing company is Helpware, a magazine produced in partnership with IBM for those struggling with operating instructions. 'We spend a lot of time demystifying and turning things into proper English.'

What Sieghart declines to demystify is the extent of his fortune. It has been rumoured that, at 32, he is a millionaire. 'I'm not going to discuss that.' He once complained that a magazine article about him 'didn't represent the real me', but in conversation he fills few gaps, revealing, however, that as a child he enjoyed Tennyson, took part in poetry readings 'because, I suppose, I have a reasonably good voice', and later found the world to be 'full of closet poetry-lovers'. Despite reports linking him romantically with the likes of Lady Thatcher's daughter, Carol, he remains a bachelor. 'I'm still single,' is all he would say.

Sieghart and Neil Mendoza, his partner in Forward Publishing, began in 1986 when 'companies didn't understand the essential point that the publications they send out have to compete with what people pay for'.

After a successful transformation of a Rank Xerox company magazine, his skills attracted other corporations, among them Abbey National, Barclays Bank and the ITV companies. Two years ago, he said: 'All in all I am pleased with life.'

That was the year he published a small volume of poetry by Dominic Sasse (The Jousting Meadow), a Sussex writer whom Sieghart met on a Belgian bus and who died in last September's plane crash at Kathmandu. Sieghart likes to quote Sasse's best-known poem, A Song For The Synod:

Our Father who fashioned

the dew to tremble,

the wind to stir,

the sea to rise and fall,

forgive us our trespasses,

as we roam these urban pastures.

Our Father who lent us breath,

sight and song,

yet also fearful passion,

protect us from undue emotion,

flatter not our vanity,

for simple is our human nature.

Our Father who art in exile,

hallowed once was your name,

now cited in vain,

the cause of sectarian murder.

You have led us into Temptation

and left us unable to resist.

The fact that Sieghart's Soho company edits and publishes poetry may seem incongruous in the corporate world from which he makes most of his money. But his business clients appear to like it. The Midland Bank, for example, has agreed to donate copies of The Forward Book of Poetry (containing tomorrow's prize-winners) to British schools.

(Photograph omitted)