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'Alas! poor Yorick.' I read him well

By Elizabeth LundStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 3, 1998



BOSTON

Americans have always viewed Britain as something of a poet's paradise. But there's trouble - big trouble - in the land of Pope and Shakespeare.

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Oxford University Press recently announced that it will drop its entire modern poetry list. The announcement came as a surprise to many, including OUP's poetry editor of 20 years.

According to Andrew Potter, OUP's director of music, trade paperbacks, and Bibles, poetry just can't pull its own weight. Ninety percent of OUP's poetry titles sold fewer than 200 copies last year. More than half reached only double figures. Some sold just a handful.

"However successful some [books] are," Mr. Potter said, "it [the series] just about breaks even. The university expects us to operate on commercial grounds, especially in this day and age.... We need to give priority to our core scholarly and educational publishing."

Literature lovers throughout Britain are concerned. Letters to The Times have angrily pointed out that poetry doesn't cost Oxford much, and that its backlist contributes to the company's income.

A letter from the Royal Society of Literature deplored OUP's "deeply disingenuous" explanations and wondered what Oxford "believes is worthy of inclusion in that 'core scholarly and educational

publishing.' " Other writers are voicing more basic concerns: What will happen to contemporary literature if even the most prestigious academic press abandons it?

Despite the outcry, Oxford isn't likely to reverse its decision. A letter to its now "homeless" poets mentions the possibility of "finding a good home for the list," but that is cold comfort to many. Once Oxford closes its doors, Faber and Faber will be the only major British press publishing poetry.

British poetry, like its counterpart in America, continues to see a limited "resurgence." Unfortunately, there are still more people who write poetry than read it.