Does modern Britain really need a Poet Laureate?

THE RATE for the job was fixed in 1692 at pounds 100 per year. No one has managed a pay rise since. In the lists of the Royal Household, it features alongside the Swan Marker, the Bargemaster, and the Keeper of the Royal Stamp Collection. It has a cast-iron record for inspiring duff ceremonial verse from major poets - when, by chance or design, major poets happen to win the post.

Between 1896 and 1913, the title was held by one of the lousiest versifiers ever to disgrace the English language. Alfred Austin, who slipped into the job as a Tory henchman of Lord Salisbury, immediately wrote a celebration of the Jameson Raid in South Africa. "They went across the veldt/ As hard as they could pelt," it ran. And, no, he never did get much better than that.

So why does Britain need a Poet Laureate? In part, to do what Ted Hughes laboured with mixed success to achieve. Laureate poems ought to link the nation's public life - as embodied, however oddly, in the persons and doings of the monarchy - with the energies of English poetry, past and present. Much easier said than done, of course. The last two Laureates have been a towering modern genius (Hughes) and a matchlessly spry and warm popular entertainer (John Betjeman). Neither ever managed a great public poem, though Hughes's efforts do have their fans.

In the 150 years since Alfred Tennyson thundered after the Light Brigade into the valley of death, poets have found it harder and harder to find an authentic style for public-address poems. So, in this age of media intimacy, should the job go to a celebrant of the great events of a private life lived under arc-lights - to someone who could rustle up an Ode on the Seduction Dinner, a Vilanelle on the Legal Separation, a Sonnet on the First Prime-Time Interview? Probably not. The next Laureate will still have to follow the time-honoured rules and blend an ease with the occasional public duties of the role with a secure grounding in the forms and traditions of English-language poetry.

Politics, of course, rules out the most eminent surviving poet born on UK territory. Seamus Heaney, of County Derry, has always insisted "my passport's green". Another Nobel laureate, Derek Walcott, hails from St Lucia and has poetic roots that run as deep in English poetic soil as Hughes's. Yet he would be unlikely to accept.

Populists might plump for a figure such as Wendy Cope - Betjeman in skirts, as it were - although earnest civil-service heads will probably prefer a bit more obvious gravitas. Charles Causley, the much-loved Cornish bard, would win an army of new friends, but his age - 80 this year - may exclude him. Carol Ann Duffy can speak with tremendous directness to the shared dilemmas of the age, but she may be too much of a wild card.

So here, with no authority beyond a few soundings from the gossip of the past 24 hours, are half a dozen candidates whose names may turn up soon on the tables of power in Whitehall (and Windsor?).

James Fenton

Worldly, versatile, much-travelled former Westminster journalist (born 1949), who also wrote the first draft of the lyrics for Les Miserables and became (elected) professor of poetry at Oxford. Writes little verse but makes a big splash when he does; can tackle great political themes with a rare conviction, but also has a tricksy, playful side that recalls WH Auden.

Simon Armitage

The Cool Britannia option - though, at 35 now, he could hang around for most of the next century. Media-friendly, streetwise ex-probation officer (and another Yorkshireman), much admired by fellow poets and enjoyed by readers. He can tackle shows on Radio 1, no problem; but would a royal funeral cramp his style?

Tony Harrison

Surviving godfather of the Yorkshire mafia: Leeds-born (1937), deeply erudite, brilliantly inventive and very (working) class conscious. More of an Old Labour choice, maybe, despite the glitzy connections that his versions of classic operas and plays (notably for the National Theatre) have given him. Candidate for Finest National Poet, but perhaps too bolshy for a job at court.

Andrew Motion

Probably the front-runner. Born in 1952, with a solid record of deeply intelligent lyric verse - his Collected Poems have just appeared. He is the acclaimed biographer of Larkin and Keats, creative-writing professor at East Anglia, and an urbane committee man (on the Arts Council and other bodies) who can speak with authority for other poets and for literature in general.

Sport
footballLIVE City face Stoke, while Warnock returns to Palace dugout
Arts and Entertainment
books
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
News
i100
News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone