The 2011 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry has been the subject of some controversy last week as two notable nominees pulled out of contention. The prize, which has been awarded by the Poetry Book Society since 1993, since losing its funding from the Arts Council last year, has been sponsored by investment company Aurum Funds for the next three years. However, an ethical disagreement with the nature of the sponsorship caused both Alice Oswald (a winner of the prize in 2002) and John Kinsella(an outspoken anti-capitalist) to withdraw from the running for the prize.

T.S. Eliot
The Eliot prize was inaugurated in 1993 to mark the 40th anniversary of the Poetry Book Society, founded by Eliot.

Given the demonstrations of the #OccupyWallStreet movement earlier this year about the disparity in wealth in America, aimed largely at investment corporations such as Aurum, it perhaps comes as little surprise that poets are vetoing a prize linked with this. Poetry hardly has much of a history co-operating and approving of the establishments such as these, as Oswald herself points out:

“I think poetry should be questioning, not endorsing, such institutions.”

Whilst Kinsella stated that:

“the business of Aurum does not sit with my personal politics and ethics.”

These withdrawals seem to have split opinion; there are those who are welcoming the protest, suggesting that an investment firm has no place being involved in a literary prize and that the poets are fully vindicated in the retraction of their candidacy, if the prize doesn’t sit well with their own ethics. There are others, however, who believe that these poets are devaluing a prestigious prize (whose former winners include eminent contemporary literary figures, such as Paul Muldoon (1994), Ted Hughes (1998) and Seamus Heaney (2006)) and the nominees should be grateful for the fact that Aurum endorse the prize to keep it going and point to the fact that many corporate firms have supported literary prizes and festivals in the past.

Wherever the truth lies, the controversy surrounding the withrawals of Oswald and Kinsella has garned some media hype and has resulted in poetry being thrust back into the limelight to some degree. It remains to be seen how the remaining candidates will react to the news, with  Carol Ann Duffy, John Burnside, Leontia Flynn, David Harsent, Esther Morgan, Daljit Nagra, Sean O’Brien and Bernard O’Donoghue all still in contention. Hopefully, the controversy surrounding this news will invoke a minor revival of interest into poetry as a medium and will result in a larger audience when the winner of the audience is announced on January 16th.


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