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This item is taken from PN Review 230, Volume 42 Number 6, July - August 2016.

THE ARTS COUNCIL has a new website. It urges clients to ‘Tell your story! Spread the word on Twitter – because #culturematters.’ On 1 June a sad story, not website fodder, reached its climax. The Poetry Book Society, established as a book club in 1953 by T. S. Eliot and colleagues to ‘propagate the art of poetry’ by supporting readers and encouraging the sale of poetry books, went into liquidation. Literature, always the poor cousin when it comes to funding, is poorer for the loss. How is it that more than six decades of important work for poetry can be allowed to fail, in an age lavish in various forms of public subsidy for the ever-broader category of activities described as the arts?

In recent times the Poetry Book Society published a quarterly Bulletin, made selections and recommendations of new books of poetry, pamphlets and translation, spearheaded the Next Generation initiatives, and administered the annual T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize. It lost Arts Council funding in 2011, occasioning protests and a letter of support signed by a hundred poets. The poet laureate described the cut as ‘disgraceful’. That same year Faber and Faber secured public funding to publish poetry. A former Faber director, Desmond Clarke, also a former chair of the board at the Poetry Book Society, remarked: ‘As a commercially profitable publisher, Faber is more than capable of investing in a small number of poets each year. The reality is that Faber has made enormous amounts of money by publishing poetry, and out of the royalties of Cats which has provided it with many millions over the years.’

The Arts Council found ways of assisting the Poetry Book Society without restoring regular funding, and the operation, with aid from individual benefactors, survived, its pulse slowing, for a further five years.

The announcement of its closure was up-beat. The T. S. Eliot Foundation will assume responsibility for the T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize, and Inpress will take over the book club functions (including the Bulletin) with transitional funding. Inpress is a not-for-profit organization set up in 2002 with Arts Council support to help sell and market the products of small and medium-sized independent poetry and literary publishers.

The Poetry Book Society, underfunded and vocational like most significant operations in the poetry world, achieved important cultural results with three dedicated employees. The benefits it brought to poetry were considerable. It had authority, a history and cultural clout, things that do not appear on balance sheets or tick the key indicator boxes in application forms. All the same, book and pamphlet publishers will miss it; poets and readers will miss it.

Twenty years ago, the PN Review 111 ‘Editorial’ memorialized the magazine’s destructive scrape with history:

On 15 June the Corn Exchange from which PN Review has been edited for a quarter of a century sustained severe bomb damage. No one seems clear, even now, how severe that damage is. Like other buildings in the heart of Manchester ours was sealed off. Writing now, a month and a half after that Saturday, we have been given only the briefest access to our premises. In a half hour’s supervised visit, wearing hard hats and sturdy shoes and wading through rubble and a century’s pigeon-droppings, we recovered a bagful of records.

Though in due course we will recover other materials, much is lost: contributors’ submissions, records, review books, the main stock of back issues of the magazine, and our only complete run of PN Review and Poetry Nation. Although PNR 110 appeared very nearly on time, and a week after the blast we were beginning to deal with editorial and production matters once more, the events inevitably affect our programme and plans.

Poets submitting work can get used to the geological editorial pace of certain journals. In this case,

Some correspondents, contributors and would-be contributors will wait in vain for a reply from us: their letters and submissions lie buried. Rain falls through the broken roof and blows in where windows and outer wall were. Pigeons who used to look in at us now nest among the papers and look out. We’d planned changes in the magazine, but nothing quite so radical as this.

We reflected on the then continuing uncertainty of the situation: what had happened, and what would happen. ‘There is, too, anger at the perpetrators,’ the editorial said, ‘and anger that the dislocation is so soon forgotten. This is not Canary Wharf – nor Belfast; just the English provinces, and the North West at that. After a couple of weeks of waiting, of gathering true and false information, most of us began reluctantly to realise that the Corn Exchange was over. A chapter had closed in brutal uncertainty. The quest for permanent accommodation began. And this is perhaps the most troubling step: projecting a future, starting again with so much that once provided the dynamic of growth and change out of reach in the ruins.’ The bombers, incidentally, were never found, though their identities are said to be known.

To end the editorial, a happier note was found. It is heartening to remember some elements of aftermath. After all, ‘there is the wider fabric of any venture of this sort: writers, readers, subscribers and supporters – the Arts Council, the City Council, one’s proprietor, the Rylands Library, the Department of English at the University, the students who work with us, our competitors (Bloodaxe in particular, who took up a collection on our behalf), and our well-wishers. That is the unrendable fabric, the true ground of an enterprise such as this.’

When, later that year at the Frankfurt Book Fair, I saw Gerry Adams with his army of publicists and body-guards striding by our modest stand to the launch of his latest book, Before the Dawn: An Autobiography, my positive feelings abated. ‘My overwhelming personal political priority for some years,’ his ‘Foreword’, written in February of 1996, begins, ‘has been to advance the peace strategy of Sinn Féin, the party I am proud to represent.’

This item is taken from PN Review 230, Volume 42 Number 6, July - August 2016.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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