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This item is taken from PN Review 155, Volume 30 Number 3, January - February 2004.

The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness yielded to a season of ripe fruit: awards and honours, bringing discontent for some. Hari Kunzru, author of The Impressionist, was awarded the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, given to writers under the age of 35. But Kunzru rejected it, on the grounds that the Mail on Sunday, sponsors of the prize, had consistently adopted a `poisonous' editorial stance towards asylum seekers. The newspaper's attitude fosters an `atmosphere of prejudice' which `translates into violence and I have no wish to profit from it'. The £5,000 purse was donated by the Mail on Sunday, at Kunzru's request, to the Refugee Council; then the judges re-convened to award the prize to someone else.

Bravo Hari Kunzru! How many award recipients look the gift horse's stable-keeper in the mouth? If more did so, we might enjoy a change in the focus of our prize-obsessed culture, where literature marketing is based on the news that surrounds author and publication rather than on the work. Literature is sold in more ways than one.

A few days after Kunzru's decision, the media got into a greater lather over a story so momentous that it made the main news on BBC radio and television and headlined in most newspapers. The poet Benjamin Zephaniah had declined an honour. Imagine that! He had received a letter from 10 Downing Street. `The prime minister has asked me to inform you, in strict confidence, that he has in mind, on the occasion of the forthcoming list of New Year's honours to submit your name to the Queen with a recommendation that Her Majesty may be graciously pleased to approve that you be appointed an officer of the Order of the British Empire.' The Guardian published Zephaniah's indignant article. He rejected the honour for two principal reasons: he objects to the word `empire', which puts him in mind of oppression and slavery; and he is none too enthusiastic about the government's policy on Iraq.

Bravo Benjamin Zephaniah! There is selflessness in waving away, even ostentatiously, a substantial sum of money or a public endorsement, on the grounds of some other or higher value than self-esteem. The calculation that such writers make is not that the prize work might be corrupted by manifest patronage from a corrupted source: the piper has already played, recognition comes after the creative event. But patronage - honorary degree, gong, prize or civic honour - is part of the structure of `repressive tolerance' that everyone was acutely aware of in the 1960s and 1970s. In those days acceptance implied complicity. When a Trade Union leader became a life peer we were affronted. Had Zephaniah accepted an OBE it would have devalued his emphatic and largely consistent polemic. If the Prime Minister's advisers had familiarised themselves with Zephaniah's work, attended one of his performances or listened to his recordings, they would have known better than to provoke him. But intelligence has not been a strong suit of the current administration, whether in going to war or in granting gongs. In Too Black, Too Strong (Bloodaxe, 2001) Zephaniah had thrown down his own preemptive gauntlet:

Smart big awards and prize money
Is killing off black poetry
It's not censors or dictators that are cutting up our art.
The lure of meeting royalty
And touching high society
Is damping creativity and eating at our heart.
The ancestors would turn in graves
Those poor black folk that once were slaves would wonder
How our souls were sold
And check our strategies,
The empire strikes back and waves
Tamed warriors bow on parades
When they have done what they've been told
They get their OBEs.

A visiting Antipodean poet recently remarked, at the end of a reading by six young British poets, `How obedient they all are.' He was referring to the ways in which their verse conformed, in its anecdotal structure, its oblique political manifests, poised ironies, the strict limitation of intent, to the lessons of workshops, the expectations of taste-makers, the requirements of the reading circuit. A sequence of prizes and acknowledgements marks a `successful poet's' progress, from Gregory Award to Forward Prize, each judged by a predictable and coherent group of `arbiters'; a hierarchy of journals through which a poet progresses to book publication, and a hierarchy of publishers, also exist. Poets who reach the dizziest heights of achievement, having passed with obeisance the markers along the way, prove an ability to follow rules, certainly; the poetry may atrophy on the way. Being a poet and composing excellent poems have become, as it were, potentially separate vocations. Nowadays Parnassus has several peaks, some real, some factitious.

Poets needn't be bad-mannered or rambunctious to write well, but few who have written extraordinarily well, making a difference to the poetic tradition, have been obedient in this thoroughly modern way. Some observed and extended or refined the laws of decorum of their age, rendering poetic language more subtle and expressive; some broke forms and renewed diction. All had a sense of the long tradition, the elements of which they were themselves made. They knew that their creative space, cleared by real poets and critics, was shared with clowns and time-servers, some of whom vehemently resisted them, while others ignored.

Today's clowns and time-servers can rejoice: another marker has been devised to define the route to a factitious peak of the new Parnassus. In the Guardian (25 November) John Ezard reported that a stipend of £10,000 per annum will be paid to a football `chants laureate' to be drawn from among versifying fans. Barclaycard, sponsors of the Premiership, will fund the post. Nic Gault, Barclaycard's `sponsorship director', declared: `Football chanting is a modern day art form. Chants continue to be the strongest link between fans and their team. They are often passed on year to year, telling the story of famous games, players and goals.'

The job description is studiously impartial: `his or her role will be to rove round matches and "compose chants observing key moments within the season" '. There may be some misunderstanding of the nature of the popular chant, but misunderstandings of form, purpose or content seldom colour strategies for spending money on modern verse. The idea of an impartial chant laureate servicing Liverpool, Everton, Manchesters City and United, stretches imagina tion, even poetic imagination, to the limit. The Poet Laureate has been recruited as one of five selectors.

There is a creative snag: given the sponsor and the high profile of the initiative, the new chant-maker must avoid the linguistic and gestural vulgarity that have commended the `modern day art form' for years. Ezard instances `Shrewsbury Town's call to arms, Always shit on the Welsh side of the bridge (tune: Always Look on the Bright Side of Life)'. One of the first criteria for the holder of the post is that he or she must be, what the traditional chants clearly are not, obedient. So while `the laureate will demonstrate their ability to create witty, insightful, rousing, and original chants that reflect the pride and passion of the game', a spokeswoman (specific gender enters in here) insisted, `You are not allowed to use obscenities.' Even the Poet Laureate's team, Arsenal, suffers chants that are not only appalling as verse but a little coarse in diction: `We had joy, we had fun, / We had Tottenham on the run, / But the joy didn't last, / Because the bastards ran too fast.' This is chanted to the tune of Seasons in the Sun. The laureate concedes that vulgarity may be a problem. There is robust and there is vulgar: `Gross vulgarity is not going to do,' he declared, `but we shall have to wait and see.' Meanwhile, poets with their c.v.s polished till they shine have formed a predictably long and exemplarily orderly queue.

This item is taken from PN Review 155, Volume 30 Number 3, January - February 2004.

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