Leading article: New laureate won't put our poetry in motion

Wednesday 19 May 1999 23:02

IF THE position of poet laureate did not exist, new Labour would hardly invent it - it is much too intimately entwined with the Crown and the Establishment to be comfortable. But the country has had a laureate since the days of Charles I, and the previous incumbent, the magnificent Ted Hughes, made the position matter, so the Government has had to find a poet to take up his pen.

In the way of this Government, the name of Andrew Motion was leaked before the announcement of his appointment was made. But sadly, for all its talk of "a people's poet" and of a reinvention of the role, the Government has taken the safe option in choosing Mr Motion (although it has still not decided whether it sees the laureateship as a job or an honour).

Monarchs had official poets because they were useful. Augustus picked a genius in Virgil, who created a sublime epic in the Aeneid while propagating the Roman state myth. If the laureateship were a job, then the annual salary would have to be increased from the pounds 70 and a barrel of Malmsey wine it has languished at since 1692. A poet laureate appointed for 10 years with a salary of pounds 20,000 a year would be a prestigious ambassador for poetry: lecturing, giving public readings of his or her own work, and being an all-purpose paladin. A job of this kind, which exists in the United States, would need have no connection with such heritage industry bonanzas as the wedding of Prince Edward to Sophie Rhys-Jones. Mr Motion would be good at such a job. Not only is he an excellent lyric poet; he is known to the public through his biographies and broadcasting, and he is at home with the ways of the Arts Council's committees.

If, however, the laureateship is an honour, a title which the country gives to its greatest, most necessary poet, as it was when the Tuscans first gave it to Petrarch, then there seems no reason either to change the salary and perks or to impose on the holder the tedium of a semi-bureaucratic job. A poet laureate would write poetry. If the laureate wished to write about national events such as the investiture of the Prince of Wales, he or she would be free to do so. This kind of poet laureate would encourage the country's reading and writing of poetry by showing how incandescent poetry can be.

Mr Motion is not the person for this job: a fine poet but not a necessary one. A better choice would have been Derek Walcott, a Nobel Prize winner and a great writer. But the perfect choice would have been Geoffrey Hill, a poet who has the historical and religious vision of a TS Eliot.

Ben Jonson dismissed government awards to poets as "birdlime for fools" unworthy of "the Queen of Arts". However, he was happy to accept royal money. Now, having settled the question of the next laureate, we should also settle the question of what the post is for.

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