Thursday 23 June 2011

The Poetry Society and organisational behaviour. How to support the call for an Extraordinary General Meeting

I was going to write about Edith Södergran this week, if I was in the mood for her.  She’s a poet one really does need to be in the right frame of mind to read.  Basil Bunting is another.  There must be more; another time I’ll think about who they are and why.

Romantic ruin no.1
Instead, this is going to be about the trouble at the Poetry Society – from the perspective of organisational behaviour.  I don’t know any of the personalities involved, and will stay off the gossip.  But I do have an MBA, specialising in organisational behaviour. 

You may wonder why I’m bothering with this.  Nearly half this blog’s readers are now in North America; it also gets read round the world from India, Brazil, South Africa, Europe and Australasia to Trinidad & Tobago, Brunei and Nepal…  So I apologise for writing about a storm in a teacup and I promise I won’t make a habit of it!

Anyway, the reason I’m doing it is that I don’t like to see an organisation which I belong to, and which does plenty of good work, in a mess.  Part of this mess the Poetry Society could resolve easily, just by communicating what’s going on.  

Romantic ruin no.2

Briefly, for anyone who doesn’t yet know but is interested, I think these are the facts.  The Poetry Society’s director, Judith Palmer, resigned suddenly in late May.  The part-time finance officer left around the same time, as did a third member of staff; and the Society’s president, Jo Shapcott, resigned in early June.  There has been a lot of fevered speculation about why, fuelled by leaks.    

Every organisation has its own culture and way of behaving.  If I were an organisation doctor, then my diagnosis of the Poetry Society’s symptoms, admittedly from a distance, would not be positive. 

The main symptom is that they aren’t telling us what’s going on.  (I don’t count the feeble statement on their website, saying that things are carrying on as usual.)  

This suggests that the Poetry Society does not want to be open about its governance, and lacks a sense of accountability to its members; and that those in charge are feeling defensive.  Secrecy has its place in the world, defence of the realm for example, but is often abused… I didn’t realise I was a member of the Secret Poetry Society.

The lack of openness also suggests that the trustees and staff don’t understand public relations.  Didn’t they know that failing to give out information would allow gossip and speculation to fill the void?   Or that when an organisation’s director and finance officer both leave suddenly, people will wonder whether financial problems have been discovered?  Apparently that’s not the case at all… but members have learnt this from the gossip, not the Poetry Society.  

Romantic ruin no.3
I do understand that there may be a sensitive personnel angle to this, which the PS wouldn’t want to publicise – indeed, they probably shouldn’t.  But why can’t they be open about the policy issues?  If resignations have taken place because of a difference over the Poetry Society’s direction, then the members should be told.  In 2009/10, membership and publications brought in £165,000 which was 21% of Poetry Society income, so they owe us.  (Presumably the publications bit is Poetry Review; unfortunately there is no note in the accounts giving a further break-down.)

As for the issues: there seems to be a split between those who want the Society to concentrate on education in its broadest sense, and those who want to do more to promote high-profile poets.  The Poetry Society is a registered charity, and its 2005 constitution states that “THE OBJECTS OF THE SOCIETY ARE TO ADVANCE PUBLIC EDUCATION IN THE STUDY, ENJOYMENT AND USE OF POETRY”.  (Interestingly, the Society’s annual report & accounts for 2009/10, which you can read on the Charity Commission website, lists subtly different objectives: “The objects of the Society are to promote the study, use and enjoyment of poetry”.  Why?  One can’t just change charitable objects casually, it’s a complicated process.)

This has all been going on for a month, and we are none the wiser except for a welter of gossip.  In the absence of the director, the trustees could show leadership – that’s one of the things they are there for.   And show respect for the membership, by talking to us. 

Romantic ruin no.4
I wonder what the Arts Council thinks – already the largest single funder of the PS, it increased its grant significantly in the recent controversial funding round in which others such as the Poetry Trust, the PBS and various publishers lost out. 

If 10% of the Poetry Society’s members ask for an Extraordinary General Meeting, it has to be held.  Kate Clanchy is trying to get names together to ask for an EGM, simply to get the PS to make itself accountable to us and explain what’s going on.  She has just started and has over 40 names so far; needs to get to 340.  If you are a PS member and would like to add your name, please email her at 


  1. Thanks for raising this important matter, Fiona. I've now emailed Kate Clanchy, and hope other Poetry Society members among your readers will too.

  2. Thanks Jon. Have just had an update from Kate Clanchy, she's got 82 names so far...

  3. I couldn't agree more with your excellent summary, Fiona. Thank you for being so articulate and 'professional'. I just wish The Poetry Society's Board would start acting similarly, as their status requires. I cannot believe that the Arts Council are just sitting by and letting this situation continue to fester... As Director of The Poetry Trust (and attender of various 'professional development' courses including Clore), I've learned the crucial importance of communication. If people don't know why you're doing what you're doing but have a right to this information, things are never going to feel 'right'...

  4. Thanks, Fiona. (Though why the romantic ruin photos? Are they an ironic aside on the situation?)

    I've also blogged on this subject today.


  5. Excellent article, Fiona. The silence of the Poetry Society board makes me very suspicious that it has something to hide. Alternatively, it could be that it is simply useless at public relations. Either way, a EGM is vital so that questions can be asked and relevant action taken, if necessary.

  6. Thanks Naomi, Jane and Rob for your support. Jane, the photos: my train of thought may have been roughly as follows. Available photos, visit to Yorkshire last week, abbeys, Tintern Abbey, WW, poetry tradition, the poetry establishment, hubris, decay, Ozymandias. That may sound more logical than it was. Anyway they are all Yorkshire abbeys: Rievaulx, Jervaulx, Byland and Fountains. Jervaulx was the most romantic, overgrown with flowers, followed by Byland, deserted and full of mist and rain which made its floor tiles glow.

  7. Thanks for clarifying a completely mystifying situation. I'm not a member so not able to influence events; but I agree entirely about transparency + the charitable objects of the Society.

  8. Thanks too, from me. I run a site called ThePoetrySocietyUK.WordPress.Com for Poetry Society members, where Kate and others have tried to make sense of the mess the Society is in. I hope it will be OK to post a link to your blog on our site.

    A small but important point about your excellent analysis of the situation: you refer to the 'Poetry Society' as if it were synonymous with the Board and staff. The Poetry Society consists of its members - Board and staff are merely servants of the Society.

    The distinction, of course, should not need to be made in a healthy organisation.

    Thanks again,

    Martin Alexander

  9. Thanks, Martin. I take your point about naming. I've mostly called the board etc PoSoc in my latest post, today, which includes links to your blog. You've already got some links to my blog on the Wordpress site, which quite a lot of people have been using to get here. I also mention you and the site in one of the updates to the post I wrote directly after this one.
    Hope to meet you on Friday!