A Week in Books

A good home for Oxford's stray poets

Friday 20 August 1999 23:00
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AN IRISH friend sent me a postcard: "Congratulations on the Oxford afterlife". Carcanet Press must look to him like that Victorian painting of the Fields of Heaven, with gowned souls floating off green lawns into the azure. In fact, when we at Carcanet took on the remains of the Oxford University Press poetry list, I did feel we were doing something worthwhile. Within days, we were subject to almost as much obloquy as Oxford had been. The little world of poetry is notoriously ungenerous.

AN IRISH friend sent me a postcard: "Congratulations on the Oxford afterlife". Carcanet Press must look to him like that Victorian painting of the Fields of Heaven, with gowned souls floating off green lawns into the azure. In fact, when we at Carcanet took on the remains of the Oxford University Press poetry list, I did feel we were doing something worthwhile. Within days, we were subject to almost as much obloquy as Oxford had been. The little world of poetry is notoriously ungenerous.

When a Laureate is being chosen or a Nobel Prize given - when an occasion that has little to do with poems on the page arises - journalists take note. On National Poetry Day, they ask "Is there a poetry boom?", and fall asleep before you can reply. Poems on the page got into the news last year, and stayed there. OUP - having tried to find a buyer - announced that it would close its poetry list. It was as if the sky had fallen.

Oxford's was a sad decision. Jacky Simms had maintained an excellent list. As it was sad when Andre Deutsch let its small, incomparable modern poetry list vanish, or when MacGibbon and Kee ceased. The demises of the old Chatto poetry list, of Macmillan's and Secker's, were sad; and of the irreplaceable Dolmen Press. There have been significant births, but they are less newsworthy. Oxford's "act of vandalism" and "barbarism" was perpetrated by the only British university press to have maintained a poetry list for most of the century. A disproportionately influential constituency guaranteed that the story would run and run.

Like other vulture-publishers, I landed on the expiring carcass and pecked at the bits I wanted. I had my eye on seven of the poets; five agreed to come. By March, a majority of the Oxford poets had "relocated" - to Picador, Faber, Bloodaxe, Carcanet. Still controversy raged, as though public pressure might turn back the clock.

In March I was contacted by a representative of the Oxford English Faculty. Would Carcanet be willing to attempt to rescue the Oxford poets as a list, working with a committee of the Faculty and with the Press? Though I am not keen on committees, I have a long-standing affection for the Press and University (Carcanet was born in Oxford). It seemed a decent thing to attempt. Some of the rage that had been directed at Oxford was now, unaccountably I think, directed at Carcanet.

Carcanet's Oxford Poets is launched this autumn as an independent imprint of Carcanet: 16 of the 26 Oxford writers provide its core, but other poets will be added. The committee has three members appointed by the Faculty (prize-poet Bernard O'Donoghue in the Chair, with Professor Hermione Lee and David Constantine), a representative of Oxford University Press and of Carcanet. Projects will require the approval of committee and Press.

The 13 August Bookseller reports that the University Press has now improved its performance hugely, in part because it has unloaded its poetry list onto Carcanet. Have we been sold a pup? If so, puppies are for life, not just for Christmas; and Oxford, University and Press in a very real sense still have their pup - even if it's feeding out of someone else's bowl.

Michael Schmidt is the publisher of Carcanet Press and author of 'Lives of the Poets' (Phoenix)

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