Wanted: one royal rhymester. An in­ter­est in trees and home­opa­thy an ad­van­tage

With Carol Ann Duffy bow­ing out as poet lau­re­ate, oth­ers are court­ing the hon­our

The Observer - - Comment & Analysis - Cather­ine Ben­nett

Since he does not read news­pa­pers or subscribe to news out­lets, maybe some­one could tell Jeremy Wright, the min­is­ter re­spon­si­ble for the me­dia and cul­ture, that un­of­fi­cial ap­pli­ca­tions for the po­si­tion of poet lau­re­ate are al­ready com­ing in?

With Carol Ann Duffy due, next spring, to com­plete 10 im­pres­sive years as lau­re­ate, an­other ac­com­plished poet, Si­mon Ar­mitage, Ox­ford pro­fes­sor of po­etry, has ven­tured to write and list of rel­e­vant qual­i­fi­ca­tions, with which, it emerges, he is supremely well en­dowed.

“If you haven’t read the whole of Be­owulf or The Iliad, or don’t know who wrote Ly­ci­das, or can’t re­cite a poem by Sap­pho or Emily Dick­in­son, or can’t name a poem by Derek Wal­cott, then,” writes Ar­mitage, subtly nar­row­ing the field, “you are not wor­thy of the role.”

That Ar­mitage does not clar­ify whether he read Be­owulf in the orig­i­nal is un­der­lined in a re­sponse from an­other ver­sa­tile poet, Fiona Pitt-Keth­ley, set­ting out her own “suit­abil­ity for the job” in the Lon­don

Re­view of Books. “Yes I have read both,” she writes. “Be­owulf in the orig­i­nal, one book of The Iliad in the orig­i­nal and the whole in sev­eral dif­fer­ent trans­la­tions. I pre­fer The Iliad.” An­tic­i­pat­ing one pos­si­ble ob­jec­tion from the for­mi­da­ble panel now tasked with ad­vis­ing the Queen on Duffy’s re­place­ment, Pitt-Keth­ley asks if it mat­ters that she lives in Spain. “I could still get to Lon­don quicker on a cheap flight than many po­ets liv­ing in dis­tant parts of the United King­dom.” Given the panel’s likely po­lit­i­cal sym­pa­thies, this might even be an ad­van­tage. Duffy, af­ter all, re­cently en­larged on the “evil twins of Trump and Brexit”.

Since this lau­re­ate se­lec­tion is the first to oc­cur in the wreck­age left by David Cameron, the panel may feel, how­ever, that there’s a cur­rent case for an above all apo­lit­i­cal lau­re­ate – as­sum­ing abo­li­tion’s out of the ques­tion – or cer­tainly some­one less easy to ac­cuse, as Duffy has been, of met­ro­pol­i­tan lib­eral elite par­ti­san­ship. Be­cause of not read­ing news­pa­pers, a non-habit he dis­closed last week, to an au­di­ence of ed­i­tors, the cul­ture sec­re­tary will have missed the in­dig­na­tion, in be­low-the-line com­ments, in re­sponse to Duffy’s use of “evil”. “I pay tax,” writes one con­trib­u­tor, “I fund the arts as much as any re­mainer. We 17.4 mil­lion have a right to have our voice in­cluded in the arts scene of the UK.”

Again, due to his aver­sion to news prod­ucts, the me­dia min­is­ter, as su­per­vi­sor of the short­list, may also be un­aware that a talked-up con­tender, Ben­jamin Zepha­niah, has al­ready up­held the tra­di­tion – al­most as es­tab­lished as the lau­re­ate­ship it­self – that the peo­ple who would be most in­ter­est­ing in the job are those most likely to refuse to do it. Fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of Larkin and Gray, Heaney, Har­ri­son and Cope, he tweeted: “I have ab­so­lutely no in­ter­est in this job. I won’t work for them. They op­press me, they up­set me, and they are not wor­thy.”

The “them”, pre­sum­ably, be­ing the roy­als, for whose glo­ri­fi­ca­tion the lau­re­ate­ship was in­vented and who con­tinue to ac­cept trib­utes – “ridicu­lous and sick­en­ing ef­fu­sions”, as they were de­scribed by Alexan­der An­drews, in an 1844 an­thol­ogy. Both Duffy, be­fore she was ap­pointed (she’s re­cently said she didn’t say it, but it was re­ported ev­ery­where with­out correction), and Ar­mitage, when her ri­val, noted the ab­sur­dity of a de­cent poet be­ing “shack­led” (Ar­mitage’s word) to royal ode writ­ing, though if there’s some­thing un­per­sua­sive about their de­ci­sions to en­dure it for po­etry, fel­low com­pro­mis­ers have tes­ti­fied to the cre­ative karma. “Oh God, the Royal poem!!” John Bet­je­man wailed. “Send the H[oly] G[host] to help me over that fence.” For Prince Charles’s first wed­ding, he was re­duced to: “Black­birds in City church­yards hail the dawn,/ Charles and Diana, on your wed­ding morn.”

As for Duffy, al­though she balked at Ge­orge’s chris­ten­ing, she was will­ing, with Rings and Long Walk, to de­liver for sig­nif­i­cant wed­dings: “Then one blessed step/ and the long walk ended/ where love had al­ways been aimed.” Aimed? Re­cov­er­ing from his eight-poem stint, Andrew Mo­tion alerted pos­si­ble suc­ces­sors to the hi­lar­ity, some­times mas­querad­ing as schol­arly con­cern, which awaits their con­tri­bu­tions, even those that, as with many of Duffy’s, will end up be­ing stud­ied in schools. Her new son­net, The Wound in Time, bleakly com­mem­o­rat­ing the ar­mistice, is al­ready avail­able for this pur­pose.

It can’t have es­caped con­tenders, or Prince Charles, that one spe­cial de­mand on Duffy’s suc­ces­sor will be the re­quire­ment for an el­egy to ac­com­pany at least one state fu­neral and prob­a­bly un­der sim­i­lar pressure to ex­press the Na­tion’s Sor­row as ev­i­dently af­flicted Nahum Tate, a pre­de­ces­sor “rat-catcher to his majesty”, as Gray called lau­re­ates. “How shall we Write, or how shall it be Read,/ The King, the King, Our Royal Master’s Dead!” In fact, Charles’s en­thu­si­asm for verse, au­di­ble in var­i­ous recita­tions, sug­gests that lau­re­ate se­lec­tion is a task he might well share with the Queen, with po­ten­tially dis­cour­ag­ing con­se­quences for some can­di­dates. Given his sen­si­tiv­ity to crit­i­cism, and the well-doc­u­mented syco­phancy of his court, a readi­ness to serve as a fel­low mys­tic and roy­alty ac­com­plice, like Ted Hughes (reader of bed­time sto­ries to the prince’s sons) could turn out, this round, to be more crit­i­cal than the recita­tion of Sap­pho on de­mand.

It might not be a bad idea, any­way, in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the rou­tine Depart­ment for Dig­i­tal, Cul­ture, Me­dia and Sport trawl through so­cial me­dia (for avoid­ance of a rhyming Scru­ton or Young) for in­ter­ested sub­jects to erase any ear­lier reservations about Charles’s achieve­ments, ditto hos­til­ity to ho­moeopa­thy and royal train­re­lated dis­loy­alty. On the bright side, they have un­til May to find in­spi­ra­tion in plant life. Her ri­vals will be aware that Alice Oswald won the in­au­gu­ral Ted Hughes award for her 2009 col­lec­tion, Weeds and Wild Flowers.

The peo­ple who would be most in­ter­est­ing in the job are likely to refuse to do it

The Queen with out­go­ing poet lau­re­ate Carol Ann Duffy ear­lier this year. Getty


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