When two of the 10 British poets shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize dropped out of the running because Aurum Funds, a hedge fund, was named the sponsor, I wondered if there was something sinister about Aurum Funds that I didn’t know about.
Does Tony Blair have something to do with the company? It appears he doesn’t. Good. That’s all right then.
Apparently the company is in bad odour for being at ‘the very pointy end of capitalism’, according to John Kinsella, who withdrew from contention along with Alice Oswald, who said that ‘poetry should be questioning not endorsing such institutions’.
Anyone who knows me will know I’m a sometimes fiery left-wing activist who devours books by Naomi Klein and John Pilger and has a very harsh view of some corporations.
But I’m also not completely stupid. I work as a financial journalist. Like it or not, big business has money. What they do with that money is a moot point and I’ll be the first to protest against companies that trash human rights or don’t pay at least a minimum wage.
On the other hand, I do know that nobody is poor like a poet. Believe me, don’t even think of making money as a poet. Do it for love, or not at all, and any royalties or prizes you collect along the way are a bit like the 13th cheque a good employee gets – not owing to you, to be sure, but a very welcome recognition of all your hard work.
The arts are struggling all over the world and quite frankly a company whose only sin appears to be investing clients’ money in a range of funds of hedge funds – including public sector pension funds – is welcome to sponsor a prize in my neck of the woods.
Don’t forget that T S Eliot worked in a bank (Lloyd’s) and he would probably have enjoyed the delicious irony of having poets sponsored by financiers.
I won a poetry prize sponsored by a life insurer when I was a student, still naive about precisely where such disparate worlds could and did intersect. That prize – a modest sum of money and a certificate – showed me that poetry can be, and is, valued by humanity. Poetry has value beyond a grimy coffee shop or a bedsit in which one spends hours trying to find the perfect rhyme or phrase. If it takes a bank – or a hedge fund company – to remind one of this, then so be it.
Aurum Funds can sponsor a prize here in South Africa any day. We’re starving for recognition, sponsorship, funding. Oh, and the company also supports a number of children’s charities, including Paediatric Aids Treatment for Africa (PATA), which provides support for children and their families affected by HIV/AIDS.
Yet ‘such institutions’ are clearly not morally righteous enough for some poets. Perhaps Aurum Funds will sponsor actors or artists next time. Yes, that will really be good for poetry, won’t it?