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Wednesday 24 September 2008

The Poet Laureate

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?


Marion McCready said...

Yes, I think we need some such person as CAD to liven up the role, or another popular poet like Wendy Cope or Pam Ayers even!

Dave King said...

Both good choices, I agree.

Roxana said...

this is very interesting and new and surprising to me, thank you for writing about it! and a bit funny too, I must confess, the concept of 'poet laureate' as you describe it (I enjoy so much your subtle sense of irony and humour). exposing my total ignorance on the subject, I have to ask: why do poets still want to get this post, if it is like this?
I discovered CAD through swiss's blog, and I like her a lot too!

Jim Murdoch said...

The problem with the post is that it has lost meaning. Of course, meaning is one of those words we use all the time and never think about what 'to mean' means. At its core 'meaning' is all to do with intent. Words are empty shells, we fill them with significance and that takes time. You need to make the word your own. And that's what the poet who gets landed with this post needs to do, make it their own. I've been 'a husband' before and Carrie has been 'a wife' before and now those words work whereas they didn't before, not so much anyway.

The thing about words, and any poet worth their salt should know this, is they change their meanings all the time; they go in and out of fashion. They just have to make 'laureate' cool like it never was before. No pressure then.

hope said...

As usual, I learned a thing or two here. I had no idea that role was not as esteemed as I imagined.

I agree with Jim...we've taken many words and turned them into hollow shells of what they once were. The most abused word in America is "hero"...apparently a description for anyone who shows up to work in a boring, underpaid position but comes back every day anyway. Sigh. My definition involves a little more character than that.

I know it's tough to deal with short attention spans and people wanting 30 second sound bites, but reading is the one thing we should never lose. Dave, perhaps you and Jim should form a committee to ensure an enthusiastic individual with a good sense of self [and a tough hide] can promote words back to a place of appreciation.

Conda Douglas said...


Interesting post--it seems almost as if though "poet laureate" was a curse as much as an honor, at least for Andrew Motion.

And Idaho's poet laureate, William Studebaker, just died--he drowned in a kayaking accident on white water (a true Idaho death).

Dave King said...

Not my phrase, poet laureate an official title, an ancient post, the remuneration for which is 630 bottles of Spanish sherry per annum. Don't worry about your ignorance, I was as surprised as you. I did know about the Spanish Sherry, but had no idea that the laureate's duties lay solely with the royal family. Thanks for your comment.

Dave King said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dave King said...


Since posting my piece I have read that Wendy Cope has gone on record saying that she doesn't want the job - as have, apparently, several other women poets, there having been something of a campaign, apparently, for a woman to be offered the post.

The procedure for choosing seems shrouded in mystery. I have discovered that Tony Blair made it clear that he did not want a homosexual in the post because of how it might play with middle England.

I agree with you about words being empty shells which we fill with significance - one argument for retaining a poet laureate, I would have thought. (Incidentally, did you know that Collins Dictionary have produced a list of words they are thinking of dropping, and are asking folk to go on line to vote for their favourites to be retained? Do you not think that strange?)

Dave King said...


Thanks for that, but I was never really a committee person and have appreciated the freedom from them since retiring.

I think our most over-used word is probably celebrity. It means a person who has appeared on T.V. for at least as long as it takes to blink - or someone who is famous for being famous. Usually having done something noteworthy is a disqualification. Very similar to your hero, really.

Dave King said...


As an ex keen canoist (ex canoeist, not ex keen) I was sorry to hear of William Studebaker's fate.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, I heard about that on the news and fubsy jumped out immediately at me. I'm editing Stranger than Fiction just now ready for proofreading and I was thinking about trying to squeeze it in somewhere.

Dave King said...


I had idly thought of doing a short post on the whole idea of vating for words to be retained, but I have been overtaken by other thoughts, so will not be doing that.
I should think it might fit in very well with Stranger than Fiction.

Rachel Fox said...

The post does need a complete rethink if it is to survive at all and most of all it needs to lose its connections to the royal family. If the Windsors want poems about their family occasions they can pay someone to do it themselves.

I read last time round that CAD had said she would not do it if offered and I'm sure that was true for many good poets and that's one reason they ended up with Motion. He may do good promotion for literature and I liked his Larkin biography but a good poet...a popular poet..? Can you name one of his poems? Anyone own one of his books of poems? The John Major of poetry?

Dave King said...


I take your point. The only poem of his that I can recall is the one which won the Arvon Competition for hims - his breakthrough, I believe. I was about to type but I can't remeber its title, when it came to me: The Letter. Technically very good, but I didn't find it exciting.

Rachel Fox said...

Yes... I don't imagine 'exciting' is an adjective that he has crossed paths with very often!

Art Durkee said...

Over here across the pond, the job is two years running, although recently Pinsky served two or three consecutive terms, and very well, I might add. The post here is with the Library of Congress, and has evolved into what Motion did, to cheerlead and promote poetry; to come up with ideas for spreading the word, and exciting the general public about poetry; etc.

Robert Pinsky was the best, most effective Poet Laureate in recent memory; he promoted and disseminated numerous ideas, and wasn't afraid to harness the new technologies to his purpose. The series of ordinary people reading favorite poems into a kiosk, which were then archived and often broadcast on segments on PBS, was simply brilliant. It engaged ordinary folks with poetry, and went a long way towards countering the bogs of academic elitism that contemporary poetry has largely become trapped in over here.

We stole the idea of Poets Laureate from you Brits, of course. But I think we've updated it rather well, and made it more relevant for the modern era.

Dave King said...


Should have gone down better with the Windsors, then!

Dave King said...

Art Durkee

The kiosk idea does sound like a touch of genius.

Your comment about academia suggests to me the idea of taking it a little further; of the poet laureate having a brief to free poetry from whatever bog it becomes trapped in. Now, that I would find exciting!

You are indisutably correct on the issue of updating. We haven't updated the role at all - hence the original remuneration.

Marion McCready said...

Rachel, that's so funny - I thought of him as the John Major of poetry also! lol

Anonymous said...

I suppose that Betjeman was the last poet who was in any way equipped to fulfill the preposterous conditions of the post. When Andrew Motion steps down (and instantly miraculously regains his mystic powers), the post should be unceremoniously abandoned. There will always be poets who will, through their eminence in their field, take on those tasks that Motion has fulfilled effectively. So, for God's sake, let's just have the Laureate role wither away - or, if it must be retained, give it to Roger McGough.

Dave King said...


I dare say the world of poetry would be none the poorer for the loss of the post. Roger McGough would do nicely, though - and he'd probably accept it! I shall watch out for the miraculous restoration of Motion's powers with great interest.

Dave King said...

Sorlil and Rachel

Obviously great minds think alike.

Mary-Laure said...

It's so wonderful to run into poems on the blogosphere.
When it comes to poet laureates, I loved Ted Hughes.

Dave King said...

Thanks for that, and welcome.
Yes, a great deal to be got from Ted Hughes, though I'm not sure that he was all that suited to the post. Maybe I do him an injustice. I still think that of recent poets Betjeman was the most appropriate choice - and I do think he has been undervalued. I agree with you completely about the pleasure of running into poems on the web. A great source.

Anonymous said...


I have been trying to email you, but they keep bouncing back. Help!

Dave King said...

Oh dear, this seems an incurable problem. I did get both of your emails. They do come through as per normal, but their senders keep getting these knock-back messages. There seem to be only two ways round this: ignore the messages or send to me on davidalexking@googlemail.com

Having got that off my chest, thank you so much for your kind words, they are most warmly appreciated - and a little undeserved, I feel.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with Dick about letting the post wither away and die. Funnily enough, I have the Arvon collection, containing Andrew Motion's breakthrough poem. I commend him for what he's done for poetry although there are some notable omissions e.g. Tony Harrison,from the poets he's put online. I like Carol Ann Duffy too much to wish the post on her. I recollect that Larkin didn't want it. Yes, John Betjeman (as dick also says) was the sort of poet for such a role.

Dave King said...

Yes, I can go along with all of that. I think it pretty well sums up the popular opinion. I wonder if it will win the day, though.