Christina Patterson: Laureate kings and queens of the jungle

If Tony Blair thinks that the media are feral beasts, he should meet some poets. It's amazing what they will do
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The Independent Online

So, the battle begins. The middle-aged incumbent born with a silver spoon in his mouth is on his way out and the race is on for a successor. The solid, older, conservative guy? We've had that before. The mouthy middle-aged woman? Risky. The mixed-race candidate (African father, white mother)? That would be great, of course, that would be radical, but are we really ready for it?

Yes, as one campaign moves into its final phase, and as newspapers edge towards the wasteland of summer (please, God, another earthquake, please God, another by-election). the dogs of war (or the poodles of the poet laureateship) have been unleashed. Actually, "jackals" was the word that Cyril Connolly used of poets jostling for poetic preferment, "jackals snarling over a dried-up well". If Tony Blair thinks that the media are feral beasts, he should meet some poets. It's amazing what poets will do for a "butt of sack". It's amazing what they'll do for a 10-line review in the TLS.

I worked with this strange species in a variety of contexts for 15 years. As a woman on the Today programme said yesterday, of her experience training elephants for a film, it was, in many ways, glorious. There were tricky moments, of course. The time when Derek Walcott, newly Nobel laureate, bit my hand. The time when James Dickey, the American poet who wrote Deliverance, told an audience that he and I would be together in another life. The poet who asked me to cut his fingernails. And the moment when I told 300 people, at a poetry reading with Andrew Motion, that at the Poetry Society (of which I was then director) "every day is National Poetry Day, unfortunately". Well, we all have our breaking points.

If poets are jackals, however, they also (having the magical gift of metamorphosis) can morph into other forms of animal life. John Betjeman, poet laureate from 1972 to 1984, was less a jackal and more a bear. A teddy bear, in fact. As the best-selling poet since Tennyson, he probably didn't feel much need to snarl over wells, empty or otherwise. His own dearth, he famously confessed, was more to do with sex, though he didn't do too badly on that front either. Looking like the back end of a bendy bus has never stopped male poets from getting their end away with a remarkably wide range of humankind – a phenomenon infinitely more mysterious, you might argue, than the process of poetic creation.

And Ted Hughes? Well, the possibilities are infinite. A fox, perhaps, the "thought-fox" of his wonderful poem about writing poetry, the one "alive" in "this midnight moment's forest". Or a crow, like the one in "Crow Alights", surveying the mess of the planet, shivering "with the horror of Creation". Or a wolf, prowling the wilderness, wild and free. Or, perhaps most appropriately, a lion, the king of the jungle, the one who towered over it all, the one who exuded such sexual potency that the minds and hearts of even the strongest females around him turned to jelly.

And what of Andrew Motion? I think, perhaps, a cheetah: elegant, clever, sleek. Or a stallion. One of those that featured in his childhood and in his poems, one to whom, as he writes in "Spoilt Child", "the world belonged". Or perhaps a hare, that symbol of the English countryside that he writes about in his poem about childhood, "A Modern Ecstasy", a creature that appears from nowhere, and which whips, apparently effortlessly, from one environment to another.

So, we had a teddy-bear-cum-dinosaur, who pandered to the establishment, wallowed in nostalgia and wrote doggerel about hot buttered toast, Victorian architecture and a Brief Encounter world in which the height of excitement was a snatched cup of tea in a railway waiting room, and perhaps a rock cake. And we had a philanderer who ditched his working-class roots, and his love of the English countryside, to write embarrassing ditties – shot through with astrological references and psychic nonsense – to an old dear rather overfond of her gin, and a middle-aged fusspot who happened to be the heir to the British throne.

And we had another philanderer (allegedly, allegedly) who seemed a touch overkeen to swap Parnassus, or Bohemia, or our old favourite, the poetry garret, for the corridors of power, and whose poetry did not seem to be enhanced by the experience. This, clearly, is an institution ripe for abolition.

Well, actually, no. We had a man who had people buying and reading poetry – often rather good poetry – in the same quantities that they now snap up Dan Brown. A man, incidentally, as well known on the telly as Ant and Dec. And we had a man who set aside his distaste of the media – a man who, pretty much accused of murdering the patron saint of feminism, had more reason than most to hate the media – to take on a role he believed to be infused with near-spiritual significance. He believed in the power of poetry, and as one of the towering figures of 20th-century poetry, he was right to. And we have a man – a fine poet – who has devoted himself, tirelessly, and for little personal gain, to the promotion of poetry in our culture, and especially in schools. Boring, difficult, important stuff.

And all this matters, because poetry is about language and it's about precision. If we can't use language precisely, we can't think. If we can't think, we're in trouble. It's language, surely, that differentiates us from animals. Jackals, cheetahs, wolves and lions. Oh, and metaphors, too.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

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