Does modern Britain really need a Poet Laureate?
Saturday 31 October 1998
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?).
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.
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?
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.
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.
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