The post of poet laureate will soon be up for grabs, it seems, as Andrew Motion is coming to the end of his ten year tenure. In fact, the phrase up for grabs may be somewhat misleading as it it rumoured that all our leading poets are running for cover, demanding police protection or diplomatic immunity (if they can prove a Gaelic connection) or generally going into all kinds of hiding, for the post is perceived as something of a poisoned chalice. Which is why, I suppose, it is now a ten year sentence and not life.
Many are the opinions now being expressed in the media and across the internet. Reading them has been something of a surprise to me - and rather salutary to discover the depths of my own ignorance. For example: I had thought the post in question carried something of a national responsibility, that the poet laureate was supposed to produce poems to mark the notable events in the life of the nation. Okay, so it's sort of difficult to come up with much that the poor guy could be celebrating in verse just now... maybe the exploits of our olympic and para-olympic teams? Not much to go wild about on the political front, though. Still, there are issues to be addressed: global warming, of course (yes, I know that has a political dimension, but this is thinking at the keyboard).
But no, actually, that is not what he does; it is what I had thought he did and it is what a lot of those who take an interest in such things think he should be doing. Indeed, many seem to think it could become an excellent blueprint for the modernisation of the post (sorry, poisoned chalice), but it is not what the job is about. What the job is about, apparently, is writing poems for the Windsors; a rap-inspired poem for Prince William's twenty first birthday, for example; a ceremonial thingy for the royal diamond wedding. Neither of these, according to their author, being exactly well received.
Another surprise, which stopped being a surprise when I thought about it (that is, when I realised that I could not recall a significant poem from his pen in the last ten years - more ignorance on my part, perhaps), was his writer's block. He has himself given the impression just recently that he has not written anything of his own account for a long while. The post (poisoned chalice) has been incredibly thankless, he told a recent arts festival, and has left him unabe to write anything at the present time. I was surprised because I had fondly thought him to have been a good poet laureate. And so he has been, in terms of the status of poetry in our society. He has worked tirelessly to promote the reading and writing of the stuff... though that, as I understand it, was no part of the job.
There are voices being raised demanding that this impossibly limiting conception of the job must go, must undergo dramatic revision before the next victim is picked upon. The change last time around, from life tenure to a ten year stint was acknowledgement that change is due. Overdue, some would say. This time there is pressure for a more thorough-going change.
My vote for the new poet laureate? Carol Ann Duffy. Yes, I know; she hasn't got a hope in hell of being the next victim: she's bisexual and she's Scottish, two facts that damned her last time around. But she's what the nation deserves. I really don't wish her any harm, but I would like to see her take on the role. She would make something of it, I am sure... Oh, but there is one other thing against her: she has been brutally honest about the vacuity at the heart of contemporary British (sorry, English) society. The first two verses of her Head of English are typical:
Today we have a poet in the class.
A real live poet with a published book.
Notice the inkstained fingers girls. Perhaps
we're going to witness verse hot from the press.
Who knows. Please show your appreciation
by clapping. Not too loud. Now
sit up straight and listen. Remember
the lesson on assonance, for not all poems,
sadly, rhyme these days. Still. Never mind.
Whispering's, as always, out of bounds -
but do feel free to raise some questions.
After all, we're paying forty pounds.
See what I mean?
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