January 25, 2005

How healthy is your Quality Health Check?

Unless you work in a library you probably don’t know that in 2000 under the Government’s targets regime something called the Stock Quality Health Check was created. Suitably dressed up with initial pilots and consultations, it is a spreadsheet into which libraries input their stock records and ostensibly are able to gauge the quality of their fiction and poetry collections through its scoring system. Interestingly it makes the claim that it is absolutely not a canon, with their definition of a library’s collection quality (ignoring physical condition of the books) as the degree to which it caters for all reading audiences. Fluffy inclusive stuff that’s good for us all then.

The new up-dated 2004 Health Check features 9 new categories including poetry. So how well did the 4 good men and a woman of the Audit Commission, DCMS, Arts Council, Society of Chief Librarians and Museums, Libraries & Archives Agency do in creating a non-canonical poetry list which caters for all reading audiences?

Assuming I have spotted all the poets in the writers list, it comes out like this:

Anna Akhmatova – any selection or collection
Maya Angelou – And Still I Rise
W H Auden – any selection or collection
William Blake – any selection or collection
Raymond Carver – What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
Gillian Clarke – any adult collection
Emily Dickenson – any selection or collection
John Donne – any selection or collection
Carol Ann Duffy – The World’s Wife
Daisy Goodwin – 101 Poems That Could Save Your Life
Sophie Hannah – First of the Last Chances
Tony Harrison – V
Heaney & Hughes (ed) – The Rattle Bag
Selima Hill – Violet
Miroslav Holub – Poems Before and After: Collected English Translations
Ted Hughes – Birthday Letters
Philip Larkin (ed) – The Oxford Book of English 20th Century Verse
Michelle Lovric(ed) Love Poems for the Nervous and Highly Strung
Robert Lowell – any selection or collection
Andrew Motion – Selected Poems 1976-1997
Paul Muldoon – Moy Sand and Gravel
Les Murray – any selection or collection
Pablo Neruda – any translation published in UK after 1990
Donny O’Rourke (ed) – Dream State New Scottish Poets
Alice Oswald – Dart
Maria Rainer Rilke – Duino Elegies
Shakespeare – Sonnets
Lemn Sissay (ed) – The Fire People
Derek Walcott – Omeros
William Wordsworth – any selection or collection
WB Yeats – any selection or collection
Benjamin Zephaniah – Too Black Too Strong

So actually it’s the Official Verse Culture canon with some missing; although if you are desperate you can always find them in one of their ‘non-canon’ canon anthologies. No doubt the Health Check will add the rest of the canon to this ‘non-canon’ in the next revision, so that over the next few years libraries (which will buy the books to achieve the 'quality score') will have a poetry stock collection with the quality to kill off poetry – to paraphrase Goodwin’s execrable anthology – 101 Poems that could bore the arse off you. It’s a scarily bad list, in which you could say you’ve made it when you get the category “any selection or collection” – god knows how Gillian Clarke is seen as the only living poet worthy.

Stunned by the degree to which this banality has so numbed public access to poetry, and that this list can be foisted on the library network without a challenge, I first complained to the Bury Librarian and sent an alternative list. Gratifyingly, he confirmed that he would purchase all them – so now at least there is one public library bastion that has Bernstein, Silliman, Bök, Prynne, Raworth, Hejinian, Pastior et al (in the spirit of TEXT Barbara Kruger, Ed Ruscha and Lawrence Weiner too!), the Poems of the Millennium anthologies, In The American Tree, and Other – god knows what that will do to the library’s Health Check score, probably nothing. And there is the insidious power of this exercise, the Alternative Tradition or even just Modernism continues to be written out of history and this Libraries Health Check makes this a mechanism of government policy as the libraries chase the centrally set 'quality' targets.

This needs to be challenged. You need to contact your local Library expressing dismal at their poetry collection and the Health Check and give them some suggestions – not a longer list than the Health Check itself. I’d be interested to hear whether your library is as open as to the innovative 'canon' as Bury’s. I will be pursuing more strategic lobbies in connection with this and will report in future entries. It may seem a small battle but the Establishment get away with each one of these small abolitions because they are unchallenged.

1 comment:

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