Does this modern nation still need a Poet Laureate?

Poetry has always been a threatened creature. Poets are not literary stars and sell few books

MY FRIEND the poet Brendan Kennelly recalls a relative once asking him what he was working at. Writing poetry, Kennelly replied. "Ah, poetry my arse," replied the relative. It wasn't that he didn't like verse or that he didn't like Brendan. But there were fields to plough, animals to tend to, bills to be paid. The relative looked on Brendan's poetic preoccupation as something of another world.

The fact that the fields and hills of North Kerry, lonely and stark and memory laden, provided this poet's inspiration did not matter; the fact that Kennelly's poetry did honour to the small farmers and their families, that it spoke of the truth of their lives, did not come into play. Poetry, it was implied, never put food on any man's table. It was stuff for colleges and scholars. Hearing the story, I was tempted to summon up some lines of Patrick Kavanagh's, lines that speak about the drama of small lives set against great events:

"I have lived in important places, times / When great events were decided, who owned / That half a rood of rock, a no man's land / Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims...

"I inclined / To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin, / Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind. / He said: I made the Illiad from such / A local row. Gods make their own importance."

I am thinking of poetry, its role and relevance, because of the renewed debate about a Poet Laureate. Twice in the past fortnight, speculation about the Laureateship has graced the grubby pages of the daily press. Now a decent interval has passed since the death of Ted Hughes, the Prime Minister's adviser is taking soundings in the literary world. The latest speculation surrounds, rather improbably, the Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney.

Seamus Heaney is a native of Ireland's County Derry. His Protestant neighbours regard themselves as British; Seamus Heaney considers himself Irish. His name and cultural background are Irish and not British. He is notoriously opposed to being labelled a British poet. Did he not write: "My passport's green, no glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen?" Is that message not clear enough for Downing Street?

Perhaps there are those who believe that the Laureateship can act as some kind of cultural bridge-builder, a device to stress the shared nature of our cultural experience on these islands. (That latter phrase is not me talking but what I imagine an arts minister would say in justifying the choice.) They can forget it. Seamus Heaney will never be Poet Laureate.

He means what he says when he points out that he is not British. Even suggesting that he be made Laureate represents a kind of trendy tokenism that insults the man's talent and his proudly felt sense of cultural identity. This is not a nationalist argument or a plea for cultural exclusivity. I loathe both concepts. It is just common sense. We would hardly instal a Russian or a German or a French poet as Laureate, would we?

If I were a British poet, I would find the notion of trawling outside Britain for a Poet Laureate vaguely insulting. Harrison and Fenton have ruled themselves out. But what about the excellent Simon Armitage? Young, accessible (a ghastly word, but you know what I mean) and - to truly delight New Labour - "relevant". Armitage would be my favourite.

But if the Prime Minister's office is looking for someone who will act as a symbol of a new, inclusive Britain, then they should look no further than Derek Walcott. He is not a Brit but he does belong to the commonwealth. He is linked in a very definite and tangible way to this island. And he writes of Britain as an insider/outsider, somebody who cherishes the language but who understands the nature of exclusion. Consider The Bright Field:

"My nerves steeled against the power of London, I hurried home that evening, with the sense we all have/ of the crowd's hypocrisy, to feel my rage turned on in self-defence, bear mercy for the anonymity/ of every self humbled by massive places, and I who moved against the bitter sea was moved by the light/ on Underground-bound faces."

Whoever gets the job, there will be inevitable and perhaps unflattering comparisons with Ted Hughes. Hughes did not produce great public poetry as Laureate. The verses he produced for royal occasions were pleasant, but uninspiring. It was the greater body of his work, his "real" work, which invested the office of Laureate with a craggy nobility. Hughes will cast a long shadow. But to those who say there is no comparable poet in Britain today, I say wait, give it time.

The more fundamental argument is whether we need the Laureateship at all. It goes back to my first point. Is poetry that important, is it relevant enough to our lives to warrant preserving this national institution? There is an argument that our culture has fragmented to such a degree that the idea of honouring poetry - in its most conventional sense - is wrong. Why not have a `"rock" laureate, a "performance art" laureate? My answer is simple.

Music and art are doing all right. Poetry has always been a threatened creature. With a few notable exceptions, poets live a hand-to-mouth existence. They sell few copies of their books; they travel the length and breadth of the country reading to bored schoolchildren in draughty schools; they are not literary "stars" in the manner of the big novelists or dramatists. It is a tough road.

The poets deserve better. You cannot create a mass market but by maintaining Laureateship you do at least make a statement about the importance of poetry as an art form. It is not a luxury, it is not solely the problems of the high-minded or the intellectual elite. Heaney, Armitage, Walcott speak to us in language that manages to challenge and yet create a strange familiarity.

For me the best of poetry combines literary verve with subject and ideas that speak of the world I live in, the personal and the public world. Heaney has made the case that poetry can make things happen, that it represents an assertion of intellectual and spiritual freedom in a world of dictatorships and censorship where the mass media is increasingly obsessed with trivia. If liberation is concerned with ideas as much as it is about political structures, then who can doubt the role of Mandelstam and Pablo Neruda, among others? Their poetry transcended the brutal repression of their times. It offers a vision of freedom, tantalising but ultimately possible.

The Poet Laureate of Britain will write of a country that is, relatively speaking, prosperous and calm. Yet the issues of nationality and identity have never been more relevant. It will be a poet who can speak to the Scots and Welsh and English, who can speak to the people of Ulster, as somebody who feels part of the broader British community but understands the passion that conflict of identity can stir.

Perhaps the answer to the dilemma of the Laureateship is to make it a temporary post, to appoint a new Laureate every five or 10 years. If language itself is constantly evolving, why limit the job to the same person until their death?

I will finish with Heaney's words. He summed up his sense of the poet as someone journeying into "the heartland of the ordinary". "Still my old self," he wrote, "ready to knock one back. A 9-to-5 man who had seen poetry."

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