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."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor