David Lister: A Poet Laureate should work harder

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The Independent Online

Who'd be the Poet Laureate? They have to write verse about those increasingly unfashionable and largely unpoetic royal occasions, births, marriages and birthdays. They traditionally receive a quantity of sherry for their pains, but no actual dosh. And, as the departing Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, pictured, complained this week, they are subject to mockery. No wonder some of the names of those being bandied about to succeed Motion are letting it be known that they are not interested.

Clearly the life of a Laureate is a tough one. It brings a tear to either eye. Andrew Motion says that the eight poems that he wrote during his 10-year tenure were the hardest of his life. One could focus on the word hard, and muse on how hard a task that must have been. But I am more struck by the word eight. In 10 years, eight poems. That does not seem to me too draining a work rate.

Motion goes further in detailing the ardours and, indeed, humiliations of the job. "How was I to steer an appropriate course between familiarity, which would seem presumptuous, and sycophancy, which would seem absurd?" He recounts how he tried to steer exactly that course with his commemoration of Prince Charles's marriage to Camilla. Part of his poem went: "I took your news outdoors and strolled a while. In silence in my square of garden ground." However, the press was scathing, he says. "They get on the phone to as many people as it takes to find someone who doesn't like the poem. Then they have their story: Poet Laureate writes another no-good poem."

The consolation must have been that he was only humiliated eight times in a decade. Better than most of us manage. Perhaps Charles and Camilla, with all we know about the history of the match, was not the best subject for a poem. A limerick, perhaps. One thing we can surmise about Camilla is that Diana wanted to kill her. With the need to cover royal occasions a part of the job, a Limerick Laureate might not be a bad idea. But there is another way to look at the job of Poet Laureate, an approach that should make all those reluctant laureates feel ashamed. The Poet Laureate could actually make use of his or her status as the only household name poet in the country to be the nation's advocate for poetry.

As far as writing goes, it would be good for the public profile of poetry to have more than eight poems in a decade. Yes, do the verses for those royal occasions, but why not poems for to mark other occasions – the Olympics, England winning the Ashes, the Glastonbury Festival, the recession, a soldier's death. No subject should be beyond poetry's reach. Why not a poem for the first day of spring? Poets used to like that sort of thing.

But beyond that, the Poet Laureate should truly be the nation's poet, an advocate and champion of the art form. Certainly he or she should visit schools and appear at festivals; but the Laureate should also be a familiar face on TV chat shows. Poetry, uniquely among art forms, has one person singled out as its representative, given, for what it is worth, royal approval, identified in the public mind as the nation's poet. To fail to make the most of that privilege is a wasted opportunity, not just for the individual, but for all who love poetry. To refuse the post altogether is a betrayal of poetry.

The secret of their success...

James Corden and Mathew Horne are probably trying to understand what's hit them with the barrage of critical abuse they have received for their TV sketch show and for the film Lesbian Vampire Killers. Critics and public alike wonder how the two golden boys behind the funny and charming TV series Gavin and Stacey could have come so badly unstuck.

I think I have the answer. It is Ruth Jones. It seems to have been forgotten that Corden did not write Gavin and Stacey; he co-wrote it. Jones, pictured, who also plays, rather brilliantly, the Welsh tough nut Nessa in the series, was the other co-writer. My hunch is that while Corden supplied the laddish dialogue, Ms Jones was behind much of the characterisation.

Why have Horne and Corden come a cropper? Look for the missing link. There's no Ruth Jones.

Get happy: Judy's back on screen

It's strange that there has not been a proper big-screen biopic of the late Judy Garland. The singer's fame, talent, her performance in The Wizard of Oz, unhappy private life, drink, drugs and early death contain the ingredients for quite a script. Perhaps it has been the lack of the right actress to play her.

In which case, the news from Hollywood this week that Anne Hathaway has been cast in a Harvey Weinstein project to play the singer is most welcome. The actress not only has a passing resemblance to Garland, but is also a major talent herself, and was unlucky to miss out on an Oscar for her portrayal of the bride's self-absorbed sister with a drug habit in Rachel Getting Married.

She could certainly do justice to the part of Judy Garland, though I hope that Weinstein will insist on her miming to Garland's voice. No actress, not even Anne Hathaway, could capture that.