December 14, 2011

In response to hedge fund support of T.S. Eliot prize, John Kinsella issues manifesto on poetry as activism


Poet John Kinsella published a rousing manifesto of poetry as activism in the New Statesman yesterday. He recently pulled out of the T.S. Eliot prize, days after Alice Oswald also renounced her nomination. Both were protesting the sponsorship of the Poetry Book Society, which supports the prize, by Aurum, an investment company that manages hedge funds.

Alice Oswald said at the time of bowing out that she ‘felt poetry should be questioning not endorsing such institutions’. Kinsella reflects more extensively on the meaning and value of poetry in general and his own aims in writing:

I am trying to write a poetry of cause and effect, of the interconnectedness of things, of awareness that our actions have consequences…

I try not to write poems of propaganda (though I have written ‘rants’!), but ones whose subject matter and language will draw the reader into considering “issues” without being instructed what to think…

I have used poetry in many protests, sometimes effectively, other times not. I once literally (if temporarily) stopped bulldozers knocking down bushland for a development while reading out poems… I have long used poems to highlight animal rights issues, and wrote poems during the many anti-nuclear campaigns that took place in the port of Fremantle during the Reagan era.

Poems can express “extreme feelings” and still work against violence; this is what most appeals to me about the medium. In recent years, I have been using poems in campaigning against the death sentence around the world.

Wordsworth wrote of “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. While admiring and understanding him, I’ve tried to create my poems in situ, outside tranquillity, in the location of the damage that’s being done (by land-clearers, rally organisers, the military, miners etc). A poem is an active, not a contemplative, entity for me, and the writing process not merely a retrospective consideration.

It’s great to hear a poet asserting the vitality of what she/he does, and gaining mainstream publicity in doing so. We at Melville House have long been believers in this idea; our first ever book, Poetry After 9/11, was an activist response to the hawkish mainstream media frenzy of the day, that saw poetry, art and creation as essential to and instrumental in the business of healing and progress. That’s been our guiding principle ever since — and yes, it’s led us to pull out of a few awards ourselves — so we’d like to offer our public support to Kinsella and Oswald.


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.