The TS Eliot prize cannot survive without sponsorship at a time of cuts

The Poetry Book Society asked hard questions of Aurum, but most poets earn little from writing and prizes are vital. On the right-hand side of my desk are eight volumes of poetry, the shortened shortlist of volumes entered for the TS Eliot prize. They represent the very best of poetry published in English in 2011. We three judges read 105 volumes to arrive at this shortlist, and we each had the painful task of leaving out favourites. One bonus is that we keep the books, to be treasured for future re-reading. They will nourish our own poetry as long as we read and write. My first "short" list contained 30 books, then 10, which, with my fellow judges' lists, must be whittled down to a joint 10, a compromise reached one afternoon in October. We felt good about the books on our shortlist, pain for those left out.

My desk is scattered with paper: notes, drafts of poems, letters, Christmas cards, lists, cheques, a paying-in book, some Mexican pesos, euros and sterling tipped from my wallet. Each is simply a piece of paper. The poems and letters are true, created things. Good poems keep their promises. The cash and cheques are illusion, promises that could be false, could be broken.

If money were water, the contents of my wallet might have flowed through pure streams and filthy gutters, might be guilty, bloodstained, diseased. The pesos passed through the fingers of drug dealers and gunmen, maybe. The cheque could be traced from its innocent signatory back through bank, investor, to hedge funds, futures, skulduggery, I am sure. They are just paper promises, earned for writing, for reading, for teaching poetry. The coins we throw into the charity box have passed through the hands of saints and thieves, without a doubt. Money. We're stuck with it.

I am sad to lose the fine collections by Alice Oswald and John Kinsella, while wholly supporting their decision to withdraw for reasons of conscience. However, let no one think that the eight remaining collections are less than glorious, or that their authors are less honourable for their decision to stay on board. They know, as we know, that not Aurum, but Valerie Eliot, the widow of TS Eliot, is the most important sponsor of the TS Eliot Award. It was the great poet himself who established the Poetry Book Society and the prize, and it is the Arts Council of England which, for no apparent justifiable reason, withdrew funds, and forced the PBS to seek help from the financial sector.

Chris Holifield, the director of the Poetry Book Society, like those in many arts organisations throughout Britain, has had to work hard to seek new sponsorship, driven by unprecedented cuts to the arts that hurt us all. When Aurum offered sponsorship, the director of the PBS found out all she could about the company, and asked hard questions. Most writers have always felt comfortable that publishing grants, travel bursaries and prizes came from bodies with safe titles, like the Arts Council. In Britain we have depended on our Arts Councils for years. These necessary bodies, to support the arts once the rich were no longer willing, or rich enough, or cultured enough to help, were not what the Borgias were to Michelangelo and Leonardo.

Most poets earn little from their writing, though academia makes a living from it, English departments depend on it, and our privatised exam boards make good profits without ever a penny of it reaching the poet. Prizes are society's way to thank poets for the words they write. Poetry has always enriched our common language. It sings, consoles, expresses shared experience and speaks to our humanity. The Poetry Book Society publicises books, increases publishers' sales, helps readers to know what they might enjoy, does important work for poets and their publishers, who are often driven by passion and who make little profit. The prize, with its £15,000 cheque to the winning poet, means increased book sales and precious publicity for the publisher. Prizes are society's way to thank poets for the words they write, and the TS Eliot is the greatest prize of all. Perhaps there is something else we should consider – poetry's power to heal. Take it from the rich, give it to a poet and reader. The TS Eliot prize cleans the money.

by Gillian Clarke

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