Notebook: Society without rhyme or reason

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POETS, popularly, are either fey, solitary creatures or roistering, philandering braggarts. They are not seen as naturals for administration and committees. These are not trimmers and compromisers, these are people who have seen the truth and must speak it. There is something about the idea of a society of poets that suggests trouble.

And so it has proved. Britain's Poetry Society is a riven thing. A thing of long-running battles and bickering, anonymous letters, resignations, calls for resignations, debates about incompetent running, dwindling meetings, declining membership and disastrous finances, debates about the very essence of what a Poetry Society should be. There has been the sale of the big, old expensive headquarters in Earls Court in favour of a smaller, cheaper building in Betterton Street, Covent Garden; and a highly critical Arts Council report recommending withdrawal of the Society's annual pounds 148,000 grant.

Thus the setting for this week's annual meeting, where rebel poets will be calling for the resignation of all 21 members of the Society's ruling council. Broadly, the rebels regret the Earls Court sale, regard Betterton Street as too cramped for proper functions, and believe the Society's management and council to be incompetent and ineffective at promoting poetry.

Ah, yes, poetry: that's what all this needs. So I invited Alan Brownjohn, head rebel and former chairman, to have a go. His effort was inspired by the great William McGonagall:

. . . was in the year 1993 matters really came to a head,

On the 4th of September when many members were still on holiday it was said,

Which was unfortunate because a lot of them were vexed,

And demanded to ask questions so as to be less perplexed,

But a goodly number of them notwithstanding, arrived on that day,

For the annual general meeting to listen and have their say,

Which meant cramming into a tiny Covent Garden office which was bought,

When the Society had to sell its splendid headquarters in Earls Court.

And it might be thought that officers and their critics at that time,

Were gathered there to dispute things like inspiration and metre and rhyme,

But it was really all about the decline in the Society's financial state,

Which the critics were desirous of halting before it was too late . . .

Mmmm. Next I approached the agent of Roger McGough, council member. 'How much do you pay?' asked the agent. Nothing, I said. 'Well, you can go and jump in that case,' said Mr McGough's agent. Fleur Adcock, another council member, proved more responsive:

Who are these bandits bent on sabotage?

Under the stocking masks and camouflage,

brandishing toy grenades, the thugs are few,

and not too fearsome, at a closer view.

Their heads are twisted backwards as they stare

sadly at 21 (sob]) Earls Court Square.

'Cancel the future]' cry these faded men.

'Bring back the past] We liked it better then

To hell with solvency, success, efficiency -

we'd rather have romantic self- sufficiency.

Let the Arts Council keep its famous grant,

Give us dry rot and debts]' they grimly chant.

'That's what we had before, when we were bosses,

enjoying the catastrophes and losses.

So wind the clock back, unmake history, vote

for us. This time we'll really sink the boat.

Betterton Street can be put up for sale,

the staff can lose their jobs, the fans can wail

in vain for poetry. Let's make things fail]

Hmmm. What we need is a little balance, a little distance, a little Gavin Ewart:

Poets daft and poets duff

Weave and leave their cat-like fluff

As they scrabble, shedding fur . . .

When they fight the hacks all purr

Highbrow art is dim and naff

(Ask them in the pub and caff.)

Rows, though, on the other hand,

Hacks enjoy and understand.

Trouble-makers, stirrers all -

storms in teacups aren't too small

If boredom cries loud for variety

Go for the Poetry Society]

Put Ewart in charge immediately, I say.