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Walcott tipped to be Poet Laureate

WESTMINSTER ABBEY will host a memorial service today for Ted Hughes, the late Poet Laureate. Many of Britain's finest writers will assemble to hear tributes to a great poet who took his ancient office more seriously than any Laureate since Alfred Tennyson.

Yet the civil servants responsible for naming his successor have shown none of Hughes's commitment. A full six months after his death, the drawn- out process of selection has come to resemble not so much an epic poem as a satirical farce.

Although the post is a royal sinecure, with its pounds 100 annual fee famously unchanged since 1692, Downing Street has effective control of the appointment. One concerned poet rang the PM's office recently to be told: "Don't you know there's a war on?" Another repeats the universal judgment among British poets on this long ballad of delay and confusion: "It's a cock up."

There is one contender whose name stands out. Derek Walcott, already a Nobel Prize winner, can boast a depth of achievement beyond any other living English-language poet except Seamus Heaney and the Australian Les Murray: both self-excluded Republicans. Born a subject of the crown on the island of St Lucia in 1930, Mr Walcott would present fewer constitutional problems than the Irish citizen Mr Heaney. And Mr Walcott has recently been at pains to ally himself firmly with the English poetic tradition.

Meanwhile, rumours that the laureateship would have a makeover to fix the length of tenure, boost its educational role, and limit the requirement for Windsor nuptial odes, have failed to find any confirmation. In addition, the Yorkshire poet Simon Armitage's much-hyped new role as Bard in Residence at the Millennium Dome has stolen some of the job's thunder.

Why has this simple symbolic role proved so hard to fill? Whitehall soundings from the Poetry Society and the Arts Council yielded an alleged "shortlist" of four. But its official status was always in doubt, especially as two of the apparent nominees could never agree to accept the job: Mr Heaney has always made it clear that "My passport's green", and Tony Harrison has a long track record of anti-monarchical politics.

Two "shortlisted" contenders remain in the frame. Andrew Motion, a fine lyric poet and accomplished committee man, and Carol Ann Duffy, who would be a gifted and energetic People's Choice. But does the state really care so much about tabloid reactions to her sexuality to deny her the job? Although her insistence that the post be thoroughly overhauled might prove more of a barrier.

That leaves Derek Walcott, the one name that refuses to go away. Will New Labour be taking credit for a Caribbean laureate within the next few days, or weeks? A heavy-hitting captain from the West Indies could be just what England's poetic First Eleven needs.