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This item is taken from PN Review 126, Volume 25 Number 4, March - April 1999.

Editorial
Sudden the death may have been, but the wake for the Oxford University Press poetry list looks set to run and run. It was discussed in the Commons and the Lords; it featured on radio and television news and found its way into the broadsheets in various guises. Publicity occasions were created by the forty Deleted Poets themselves, even those, a majority, who have happily found alternative imprints. They were joined by other poets who, not having belonged to OUP, warmed their hearts at the brazier of solidarity.

Journalists were invited to a belligerent reading organised 'by the university's English faculty'. The venue was the Freud Café-Bar, the desecration - or adaptation - of a handsome neoclassical church opposite Sir John Vanbrugh's Clarendon Building, a barracks-like edifice (the Stables of Blenheim, one don calls it) where the University Presses originally rolled; there OUP (no longer sole printer of its books) has its being.

In the Times Literary Supplement of 5 February Keith Thomas, President of Corpus Christi College and Chairman of the University Press Finance Committee, and therefore a key Delegate of the Press, defended the bleak decision on financial, but also on cultural, grounds.

Some very strange statements have been made and some queer postures struck, as much by the outragers as the outraged. Alan Howarth, Minister for the Arts, has more right to speak about poetry than the Prime Minister has about football or the chief inspector of schools about sex between teachers and students. Mr Howarth writes, reads and perhaps buys poetry. But is it helpful or, more pertinent, is it accurate to describe the OUP Delegates as 'barbarians'? 'It may be said,' said Mr Howarth, sounding like Mr Haig, whose party he abandoned for New Labour during the Major years, 'It may be said that it is not for the Government to tell OUP how to run its business...'. This was no personal intervention: the government was speaking. 'But is this just a business decision?' he went on. 'Is OUP just a business? Is there no public interest in their decision to discontinue publishing contemporary poetry?' I would have answered his questions, respectively, yes, yes and yes. He answers no, no and no: 'OUP is not merely a business. It is a department of the University of Oxford and has charitable status. It is part of a great university, which the Government supports financially and which exists to develop and transmit our intellectual culture.'

That's scary talk: in their overheated rhetoric the words don't quite know what they mean. A charity has to be run like a business because it is a business subject to stringent controls. Every client of the Arts Council is run as a business, whether it enjoys charitable status or not. Universities are run as businesses: the Government knows and exploits this fact in relation to pay, student numbers, redistribution of resources, etc. Each Department, Resource or Profit Centre is run as part of a business.

Mr Howarth's rhetoric leaves him rather vulnerable. One reason OUP might adduce for closing its poetry list is the increasing pressure - because no market exists to regenerate the sector - on libraries. When I began publishing 30 years ago, over 25% of the books I sold went to library suppliers. Less than 3% go there today. The government is responsible for funding libraries and thus for not funding them, for the impoverishment and 'repositioning' of the libraries within the community. If Mr Howarth wants to encourage the publication of poetry, he might urge his government to redevelop a civic sector which is perishing not in Oxford but in less well-heeled and well-represented communities, or constituencies. It is the sector in which people develop their reading of - among other things - poetry.

From its early years Oxford University Press published not new poetry, but the English and other classics. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Oxford Standard Authors were the envy of every literate culture - they inspired the Library of America and may have had something to do with the Pléiade. Mr Howarth does not seem to have noticed that those books are no longer on book shop or library shelves. They are not in the OUP catalogue, few feature among the 4000 publications that, Thomas says, issue from OUP each year. The OUP decision to stifle the present is logical in view of its stifling of all but the most vendible poetry (and prose) of the past.

In the eighteenth century the Press suffered seriously from 'want of vent'. In the late twentieth, Mr Thomas declares, it suffers from the scale of competition. This is plausible up to a point. What is not plausible is Mr Thomas's assertion that OUP is not and has never been subsidised and that poetry should thus be left to the subsidised imprints (Faber? Cape? Pan?). The commercial ventures and subsidised small presses against which OUP competes for market share generally pay authors, whether tenured academics or not, a proper royalty. Many university press monographs and critical books are in effect 'subsidised' by authors and editors who receive no advances and nugatory royalties. There are, historically, other subsidies: the Clarendon imprint grew out of a legal wheeze, a subsidy in perpetuity: it involved the extension of copyright in Clarendon's magnificent History to benefit the Press for ever (rather as Peter Pan benefits Great Ormond Street Hospital). If Clarendon has provided less of a bonanza in this century than he did before, perhaps it's time for film rights or a musical to be promoted.

The University Presses of Oxford and Cambridge had a sanctioned monopoly on printing the Bible; one of the nineteenth-century Oxford editions sold 1,000,000 copies on the day of publication. More even than Byron, or Birthday Letters. This isn't the same as an Arts Council grant, but when the Establishment creates demand and licenses only one or two producers to satisfy it, certain benefits - denied to competitors - accrue.

Individual and institutional subventions support the publication of many volumes and journals at any academic press, and it would be unrealistic to imagine that the sum total of such subsidies to the Oxford University Press is less than the subsidies paid by the Arts Council to its independent publishing clients. It's just that these other subventions do not have 'for poetry' written on the cheque.

Is it true that the Press makes £6,000,000 a year 'for the University', as the newspapers say? Or are the profits ploughed back into scholarship, in particular lexicography and the Dictionary of National Biography, as the Chairman of the Finance Committee says? Facts could be established and put into coherent order if anyone really cared about facts. But those against Oxford's decision know what they feel; and those who make the financial decisions on behalf of the Press know what they know. If it is as Mr Howarth declares 'our business', then we would do well to understand the business element in a businesslike way. Numbers mean something, even in the poetry industry. In my view the numbers, if we had access to them, would show how marginal and unimportant, within the overall operation of OUP, poetry was, and how gratuitous, given that fact, the killing of the list.

More time and space have been devoted in the media and the House to the OUP decision than have gone to the renewed crisis in the library service, as authority after authority, trying to come in under the spending limits set by Mr Howarth's government, cut 'where it hurts least'. More time and space have been spent on the OUP decision than on reviewing all the OUP books of poetry published in 1998. News is, of course, more compelling than what Pound called 'the news that stays news' - poetry. And a final irony. A thousand, five thousand, ten thousand people got hot under the collar at the OUP decision. If it were possible to poll them, and if they replied honestly, would we be able to establish that each of them during the last calendar year had purchased at least ten, or five, or three new OUP titles? Would we be able to confirm that their annual spend on contemporary poetry was £100? Or £50? Or even £25? If not, the protest is rank sentimentality and OUP may have made a wise wrong decision.

This item is taken from PN Review 126, Volume 25 Number 4, March - April 1999.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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