HL Deb 14 January 1999 vol 596 cc276-8

3.24 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking to encourage the contribution of poetry to national culture.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Government are encouraging poetry to flourish in many ways. The Arts Council, which is funded by my department, will this year spend more than £1 million on support for poetry. As part of the national year of reading, a project will enable poets to work with schoolchildren throughout the country. The National Lottery awarded the Poetry Society £450,000 for its poetry placement schemes project. The society employs poets throughout England to encourage the reading and writing of poetry. Last year the Government marked the UK presidency of the European Union through the promotion of poetry.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. In view of the importance of poetry to any national culture—and it is important and not just an adornment; for example, in the Soviet Union this century it has been literally a matter of life and death—I think the Minister will understand that there is very widespread disquiet about the decision by the Oxford University Press to cease publishing its Oxford poets list, the second most significant list in the country. Would it be possible for Her Majesty's Government to make any representations about that?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am sure that the right reverend Prelate will appreciate the difficulty that the Government would have in intervening in the decisions of what is, after all, a private company. I was not much encouraged by the response of the company in print last week to the right reverend Prelate's protests about the abandonment of the poetry list. The response was: It is a strategic decision. We have to target our core identity". I should have thought a literary publisher could avoid that sort of management-speak.

Lord Baker of Dorking

My Lords, I associate myself with the comments of the right reverend Prelate. Since the 16th century, the Oxford University Press has been the custodian of the English language. It is disgraceful that, at this particular time when we are enjoying a renaissance in the writing of English poetry and when it is generally agreed that the one universal genius our country has produced in the last thousand years was a poet, the Oxford University Press should cease publishing contemporary poetry. I appreciate that the Minister can do very little about the Oxford University Press, but the amount of money he has mentioned which is going into the arts is quite small as regards poetry. I can tell him that very little of that will find its way into the pockets of poets. I suggest that he should be rather more imaginative and perhaps bear in mind Shelley's famous phrase that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, Shelley said that poets are, the trumpets which sing to battle…Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world". I am sure that the Oxford University Press will pay due attention to the words of perhaps the most distinguished anthologist in this House.

The noble Lord is wrong about government expenditure not going to poets. All the money to which I referred in my first Answer is going to poets. The Arts Council of England is supporting the Poetry Society, the Poetry Book Society and a number of the smaller poetry publishers who do not have opportunities to cross-subsidise their publishing of poetry. I am not at all ashamed of what the noble Lord describes as a rather modest contribution from the Government.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there is not a village in Wales without a very good poet in it, probably more than one? Can he say what assistance they are being given? Is he aware that, if ever he wants to see one, they are on Welsh television at least once a week, arguing against each other about a variety of poetry. Does the Minister think that that is an excellent thing in Wales?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I think that we in England could all learn a great deal from the Welsh example. Perhaps if Welsh poetry could be translated we could have our own Eisteddfod and we would benefit significantly from that. I am pleased to hear what my noble friend has told me.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, does the Minister agree that most people would be behind the general drift of the right reverend Prelate's question? But one has to say that what stands at the core of the British poetic tradition must be the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, also originating from the 17th century. Without wishing to cross swords with the right reverend Prelate—he and I shared the same school chapel for a number of our formative years—does not the Anglican Church bear some responsibility for its successive "modernising"—I borrow that word from the Labour Party—of these works, thereby losing a good deal of the poetry?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am aware that the noble Viscount is referring to the Established Church. I do not think that gives Ministers who are not members of that Church the right to interfere in its affairs.

Lord Bragg

My Lords, I should like to mention the late Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, in this context, not only because of the extraordinary quality of his poetry and because his book Birthday Letters outsold every other hardback in the UK in 1998, thus confirming the British public's willingness to engage with fine and complex poetry, but particularly because of his lifelong dedication to the idea that the imagination of all children is nourished and enlarged by learning and writing poetry. Therefore, I should like to ask what measures are being taken, particularly in primary schools, to ensure that our unique poetic inheritance is being passed on consistently to the next generation.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his tribute to the late Poet Laureate. In fact I have been enjoying Tales from Ovid rather more than Birthday Letters, but that is clearly a matter of taste. A great deal of the effort which I have been describing is going to the encouragement of poetry in schools. That is what part of the poetry placement scheme is for. Much of the money of the Arts Council in England is going for that purpose. My noble friend is right to emphasise this point.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that, Rain enough will fall and sun will shine And peace will reign in 1999"?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes it clear why I was right to resist the temptation to attempt to give answers to any of these questions in verse. They would have been in doggerel.