An Unwelcome Prize?

Last week’s Saturday Telegraph  had and article by Tristram Fane Saunders with the title, ‘Does Anybody Want To Be the Poet Laureate?’

In my early years at university, I used to write reams of ‘classic’, romantic poetry in iambic pentameter, and I would have been enchanted with the thought of being Poet Laureate of anywhere – even Atlantic City – if it had been offered to me.  But, had I read Mr Saunders’ article at the time, I might have had second thoughts.   As far as I can tell, Mr Saunders is a poet, a comic, writer,  translator, commentator for the Telegraph, and all around culture vulture.

Tristram Fane Saunders

He says, “Who would want to be poet laureate? John Skelton, Henry VIII’s tutor and self-proclaimed “Lauryate”, had to put up with rivals “rudely revilyng me in the kynges noble hall”, and royal poets have faced mud-slinging ever since – especially from other poets.

“Dryden, the first modern laureate, called his successor, Shadwell, “a foul mass of corrupted matter”. George III’s poet Pye was guilty of churning out verse “doggedly and dully” according to Southey, who found he suffered from the same problem on inheriting the post.

“In 1999, the appointment of Andrew Motion was denounced as “a shameful failure of integrity and imagination” by Carol Ann Duffy. She had nothing against Motion, but felt the job should have gone to a woman. (Of course, a decade later, for the first time in history, it did.)

“As Duffy’s 10-year tenure comes to an end this year, it’s time for the country to choose its new bardic mascot. But who makes that choice? Until now it has been shrouded in obfuscation, but this time the Government has laid the whole process bare. A “steering group” of 15 named experts has been assembled from the heads of various literary festivals, libraries and poetry organisations around the UK. The group has drawn up a shortlist of four or five poets, culled from a longer list after a bit of back-and-forth with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

“It is now up to the DCMS to make the final selection – or selections, if the first choice turns the post down, as Philip Larkin did in 1984. As a formality, the decision is passed on to the Prime Minister, who then submits it to the Queen for approval. In practice, however, the buck stops with the head of the DCMS, Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright.

“I don’t envy the steering group’s job. After all, how can you choose a laureate, when it’s still not altogether clear what a laureate is?

“In theory, being laureate entails no more work than being an OBE. The title is defined online by the royal household as “an honour awarded by HM to a poet whose work is of national significance”. Wordsworth only took the role after being assured by the Prime Minister that “you shall have nothing required of you”. The public may expect topical poems on state occasions, but the Queen doesn’t. Quit writing and move to Majorca, and you’ll still be eligible for your annual salary.

“That salary, as it happens, is £6,000, paid for by DCMS, and a “butt of sack” (cask of sherry) gifted by a vineyard in Spain. The booze was originally a gift received by Ben Jonson, unofficial laureate to James I and Charles I, then revived as part of Dryden’s honorarium. Duffy, Motion and Hughes all received their butt – measured into 720 bottles – from the same producers in Jerez.

“For the past 10 years Duffy has not been sitting on her butt, but giving it away at launches and selling it for charitable causes.

“The lack of hubbub around this year’s appointment is a far cry from the heady days of 1999, when the race was beset by one scandal after another. Rumours that Tony Blair wanted to “modernise” the position and reinvent it as a “People’s Laureate” (though denied by Downing Street) prompted an aghast letter from Hughes’s widow, leaked to the Telegraph, which accused Blair of jeopardising “the sanctity” of the post.

“Then a shortlist of five names was leaked, of which two had already ruled themselves out in verse: Seamus Heaney (“My passport’s green./ No glass of ours was ever raised/ To toast The Queen”) and Tony Harrison, who published a long poem attacking Blair, the monarchy and “toadies like Di-deifying Motion”.

“Derek Walcott, also on the list, was seen as a long shot by reporters at the time, due to doubts over whether he would be willing to move to the UK, and the lingering bad publicity of a 1996 sexual harassment allegation (though the claim was dropped). Of the five, that left only Motion and Duffy. Then came another leak: a Government “source” told the press Blair had quashed Duffy’s chances. The PM, it was claimed, was reportedly “worried about having a homosexual as poet laureate because of how it might play in Middle England”.

(In) “Bloomsbury, one bookseller is running an under-the-table sweepstake. I’m told three names have attracted significant bets from the literati there: Dalit Nagra, Alice Oswald and Lemn Sissay.  I’d add two more to that list: Jackie Kay, already Scotland’s laureate, and Simon Armitage, who’s been tipped as a laureate-in-waiting for at least 20 years.

“As for the laureateship, whoever gets it must have a thick skin. Take a leaf from Betjeman’s book. “Your appointment has been stigmatised as arbitrary and irrelevant,” Martin Amis once told the then poet laureate in a radio interview. “Do you, Sir John, feel yourself to be arbitrary and irrelevant?” Betjeman didn’t hesitate: “Yes, thank God.””

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