The jury is out: there is no agreement on who would make a fitting poet laureate, even less on what they should spend their time doing

ir John Davenant, the second poet laureate, had no nose. How did he smell? No idea - but his poetry stank. And that's often been the problem with poets laureate. Ben Jonson, the first, was a fine writer. o was Ted Hughes, the most recent. But in the 360 years between them came an awful lot of hacks, poetasters and doggerel-merchants.

Only John Dryden (appointed 1670), William Wordsworth (1843), and Alfred Tennyson (1850) were artists of the highest order, and the first two were well past their best on appointment. The laureates since the First World War were by no means negligible figures, but still not quite of the highest rank, until Hughes. Hughes will be difficult to replace. Not only had he a powerful and distinctive voice as a poet, he took a genuine and unexpected interest in the production of "laureate verse" - and was mocked by the likes of Private Eye for his pains.

Four names have been mentioned often, not least because of their obviousness: eamus Heaney, Tony Harrison, Andrew Motion and Carol Ann Duffy. Others must surely include Derek Walcott, James Fenton and Geoffrey Hill. But as people have been mentioned, they have had a nasty habit of ruling themselves out, as Heaney and Harrison have done.

ome point to a shortlist of two: Andrew Motion and Carol Ann Duffy. Motion is a fine poet and biographer whose appointment would be applauded by many poets and critics but who could hardly be more white, Oxbridge, English or male. Carol Ann Duffy, meanwhile, was born in cotland, a woman, and is much liked in the poetry world, without being quite the household name Hughes and Betjeman were on appointment.

Those who know both candidates say Motion wants the job, which will probably count against him, while Duffy does not, which may work in her favour. Both are sick of the fuss.

Interestingly, both wrote about the death and funeral of Princess Diana - to the public scorn of Tony Harrison, in Motion's case. This suggests that, without actually being required to, they may have it in them to take on the subjects that laureates traditionally address. But not, perhaps, in quite the same way.

Perhaps as a reflection of the difficulty of the task, Downing treet has invited suggestions from interested parties, not only for a new laureate but also for modernising the job. That may not be straightforward, since the poet laureate is technically a member of the Royal Household, theoretically appointed by the Queen. That may be one reason why the idea, briefly floated, of electing the laureate has now faded. Or perhaps the leaders of young, vibrant Britain were worried at the thought of placing the laurel wreath on the brow of Pam Ayres.

Other new ideas included introducing a salary for the post and a fixed contract: pounds 20,000 and 10 years have been mentioned. In the U, for instance, a national poet laureate is appointed by the Library of Congress, with an obligation to produce readings and lectures, but how many Americans know his or her name?

No one is suggesting that Labour's laureate will produce odes to the New Deal, or verses hailing the new cottish Parliament. He or she is supposed to become an "ambassador" for poetry, going into schools and helping youngsters turn from glue-sniffing towards iambic pentameters and light verse.

But many of those canvassed have done their best to stop the "people's poet" before it starts. Peter Jay runs Anvil Press, publishers of Carol Ann Duffy. "My personal view is that the thing should stay honorific, and not become a prize or a job," he said. "I don't think there should be any specific obligations."

Michael chmidt, managing director of Carcanet Press, thinks most people misunderstood the nature of the laureateship. "I think that it's not a job but an honour of some sort," he said.

Hughes achieved something remarkable: he found an interest in nationhood, royalty and the constitution and responded to them in a way that did not betray his poetic identity. "With hindsight," said Peter Jay, "he was a natural."

But these are the days of the Higher olipsism, with writers in all genres concentrating on their own lives, their own emotions, their own experiences. Poetry is not immune.

Once, poetry was the established medium for describing, discussing and satirising public events, but then there were no newspapers. There are direct political references in writers such as James Fenton and Tony Harrison, but many of today's poets are more likely to tell you about washing their hair.

Paradoxically, this retreat from public subject matter comes at a time when poets have never led more public lives: lecturing, giving readings and holding workshops in libraries, hospitals and schools.

"All poets do that," says Chris Meade of the Poetry ociety. "Because poetry pays very badly, people make their money by doing other things, like workshops and readings."

The society's Poetry Places scheme, funded with pounds 450,000 from the Lottery, has spent the past couple of years putting wordsmiths on the shopfloor. Poet and publisher Peter ansom, of heffield, spent six months with Marks & pencer, running writing workshops at head office and in the branches.

He is a great enthusiast for the idea, noting that, unlike in his normal work in libraries and arts centres, he was dealing with people who didn't think they could write. They found they could, and he has converted them to the joys of contemporary poetry.

As court poet to t Michael, he was under no obligation to produce any work but he found himself inspired. A verse diary of his experience will form part of his next collection. He wants to call it Point of ale.

Michael chmidt is sceptical about the idea of the laureate as a single national "ambassador" for the art. "Think of how many ambassadors for poetry there are at the moment," he said, adding that if the role of laureate is to be recast, it should be done by a strong laureate in the post rather than by outsiders.

In the meantime, the noisily promiscuous Fiona Pitt-Kethley has declared she would love the job. You could do worse, Ma'am. Most of your predecessors did.