The decision of the Arts Council to cease funding the Poetry Book Society has stunned many in the world of poetry—it has put in doubt the future of this much loved and unique organisation.
It also raises serious questions about the future of the UK's most prominent poetry award, the T S Eliot Prize, which is awarded by the PBS.
Ironically, the PBS was set up by the Arts Council in the early 1950s, following a suggestion by Sir Stephen Spender. T S Eliot and Sir Basil Blackwell were members of the original board and Philip Larkin was chairman in the early 1980s. Many of our most distinguished poets, critics and publishers have been involved with the PBS over the past 50-plus years and its selections of poetry collections provide a unique overview of the best in modern poetry.
The judgment of its selections is held in high regard among editors, publishers and especially, poetry readers. Over the years, the PBS has chosen collections by a remarkable list of distinguished poets including Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin and Carol Ann Duffy.
The PBS also appoints the judges of the annual T S Eliot Prize and the shortlist includes the four quarterly selections. The readings by the shortlisted poets at the Royal Festival Hall in January were attended by possibly the largest audience to have ever attended a poetry event.
The Society's standing has always been based on its enviable reputation for the quality of its selections and recommendations. Poets and their publishers have long sought the gold standard of the PBS selectors’ approval and the additional 1,750 sales that selection can deliver. Being shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize also helps the work of our poets to be heard by millions of people on Radio 4 and to attract significant additional sales.
Membership includes educational establishments from secondary to post-graduate level, many public libraries and a huge range of international organisations which rely on the PBS for their recommendations. To these organisations the PBS is an ambassador and offers a window into British poetry.
While poetry may be going through another renaissance, it has always been difficult for poetry publishers to attract shelf space in bookshops. Many poetry publishers rely upon Arts Council grants just to publish but removing Arts Council funding from the PBS itself directly penalises poetry readers. They are likely to lose the much valued selections and recommendations, and the convenience of an efficient provider of contemporary poetry.
Alas it seems the vision of T S Eliot, Philip Larkin and Sir Basil Blackwell, and that of the early Arts Council, in providing the public and libraries with access to great poetical works has been lost. We will all be losers unless the Arts Council quickly sees sense and restores the PBS's funding of about £135,000 per year.