Poets withdraw from prestigious £15,000 prize

Two renowned poets have withdrawn from the T.S. Eliot Prize because they objected to where the prize money had come from. Does it matter who funds the arts?

The poet leads a humble life. Day by day, word by word, the writer crafts verse for the wider world. The poet rarely gets paid. The cash from winning a poetry prize is a reward reserved for a talented few. If shortlisted, a writer gets publicity and the opportunity to see their books fly off the shelves.

But when top poets Alice Oswald and John Kinsella were nominated for the T.S. Eliot Prize last week, they withdrew themselves from the shortlist. They disagree with where the money for the £15,000 award has come from: an investment firm, Aurum, which manages hedge funds, and which has agreed to sponsor the T.S. Eliot Prize for the next three years.

The company stepped in to support the prize when the award’s organisers lost their public, Arts Council funding after government cuts last year.

Private or corporate sponsorship of the arts is hardly a new thing. Throughout history, rich individuals have been patrons to poets and artists. In Ancient Rome, the emperor Augustus, an effective but ruthless dictator, sponsored great poets including Virgil and Horace. In Renaissance Florence, the Medici family helped foster creativity by commissioning hundreds of now-famous paintings. In contemporary society, such philanthropy continues on a huge scale, as rich corporations sponsor art events in order to gain publicity and respect.

The judges of the T.S. Eliot Prize claim that Aurum is a respectable patron, but the two poets remained dubious. Rather than compete for the large cash award, they chose to walk away, heads high. Kinsella argued, grandly: ‘the business of Aurum does not sit with my personal ethics and politics.’ The Australian poet went on to call himself ‘anti-capitalist.’

For art’s sake

Why didn’t these poets jump at the chance to win £15,000? Even if they disagreed with the financial business of Aurum, the money could have gone far to support their work. They could have accepted their nomination graciously, and if they had won, given the money to charity.

Oswald explained her decision in radical terms: ‘Poetry questions the established order of the mind,’ she explained. ‘It goes right down to the faint, honest voice at the bottom of the skull.’ This honest voice had persuaded her that accepting bankers’ gold would dirty her words and destroy her integrity; that the subtle artistic price she would pay for accepting Aurum’s money would be too high.

You Decide

  1. Is it wrong to take prize money from a company you disapprove of?
  2. Should artists and poets be paid more? Less? Anything at all?

Activities

  1. Imagine you were one of the other poets shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot prize. Write a letter to Oswald and Kinsella explaining whether you will be following them in withdrawing from the shortlist or staying in the prize competition, and explain your reasons.
  2. Who should pay for the arts, governments, rich individuals and corporations, or the public at large. Divide into three groups, each examining one of these possibilities. What advantages and disadvantages can you think of for each?

Some People Say...

“Artists and writers should just get a proper job.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So poets have always had patrons?
In ancient times, poets were often supported by kings and lords, who paid them to compose flattering accounts of their ‘heroic deeds’.
That can’t have made for very good poetry!
No, generally not. But some of these ‘court poets’ were very good. The Roman poet Virgil, for example, wrote poetry that – many people think – subtly undermined the reputation of his patron Augustus. Shakespeare, some say, did the same years later, creating ambiguous, questioning plays to be performed at the royal palace of James I.
A dangerous game!
Indeed. It is only comparatively recently that poets have really had freedom to say whatever they like. Historically, writing rude poems about monarchs was a good way to end up exiled – or even dead.

Word Watch

Arts Council
A government funding organisation that supports arts projects and organises cultural events. Last year, the Council suffered from cuts in funding, as the government had to tighten its belt.
Patron
Somebody who offers financial support to an artist or project they admire. Patron comes from the Latin, pater, meaning father.
Philanthropy
The effort to improve the world’s wellbeing through charitable donation or kind actions. The opposite is misanthropy, meaning hatred of humankind.
Anti-capitalist
Capitalism is the main economic system in the Western world. It promotes money-making and profit. Something is anti-capitalist if it opposes capitalism.

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