Monitor: Picking poets - what the world's newspapers say about the next Laureate
Sunday 08 November 1998
- American Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, New York Times
POETRY IS the art most concerned with language. Maybe our most desperate and unacknowledged need is to open ourselves up to the clarity of truthful speech. This is the specific task of the poet, not an effete pastime but as part of the real world, in the street, at public gatherings and in the bedroom. This is why London Zoo and Marks & Spencer both now have "poets in residence." Ted Hughes wanted to spread the poetic word. Whoever succeeds him as Poet Laureate must carry on this task, becoming not so much a court poet, celebrating the narrow world of the Windsors, as an ambassador for poetry in the real world.
TONY BLAIR was urged yesterday to carry out a radical overhaul of the way the Poet Laureate is appointed. MPs said the "old-fashioned" selection process should be opened up to wider consultation so that the Queen's Poet became more of a People's Poet. Mr Blair has yet to turn his mind to the appointment of the new Poet Laureate, let alone consider the armchair procedures involved in it. He has little time these days to read books, and poetry may never have been high in his interests. When he was asked last year for his favourite poem about peace, Mr Blair instead came up with a folk song called "The Green Fields of France". Poets and publishers came up with at least a dozen names (of potential laureates). Some felt that someone as controversial as Tony Harrison would raise the profile of poetry; Carol Anne Duffy would be able to write wonderful poems to order; Douglas Dunn would excel for being a witty writer and feeling things strongly. Others suggested heavyweights such as Andrew Motion, partly because he would be the public figure for literature, or Seamus Heaney.
THE NEXT rank of candidates (after Seamus Heaney) suggested by weight of work or reputation - James Fenton, Geoffrey Hill, Tony Harrison, Craig Raine - all raise the difficulty of being unbiddable when the job depends on the doing of bidding. Will the next laureate carry a pager on which Alastair Campbell flashes approved metaphors and meters? If so, Fenton, though otherwise supremely eligible, is not the man. The perfect title for a collection of his work would be Off Message. (Tony Harrison's) range of subjects - unemployment, the futility of the Gulf War - may be regarded as rather Old Labour. There is no poet who fits Blairism as naturally as Hughes and Larkin fitted Thatcherism.
A (SCOTTISH) version of the laureate? Why not. The heirs of the Scottish Renaissance are still with us. And there is a younger generation which has brought a fresh eye to the Scottish scene. Their Scottishness ranges, as Edwin Morgan puts it "from the rabid to the near-invisible" They live in the real world. If you wanted a poet to put us properly in our place, who better than Liz Lochhead? She has already given us her version of Scotland in Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off: "Ah dinna ken whit like your Scotland is. Here's mines. National flower: the thistle. National pastime: nostalgia. National weather: smirr, haar, drizzle, snow. National bird: the crow, the corbie, le corbeau, moi!"
- Magnus Linklater, Scotsman
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