From the NS archive: Just the poet to make us yawn again

24 May 1999: Ted Hughes made the Poet Laureateship seem exciting. But for his successor New Labour has gone to a tired, old, Oxbridge voice.

The position of Poet Laureate in England – that is, the national poet ostensibly chosen by Buckingham Palace, but in fact, in recent decades, nominated by the Government and approved by the Queen – has long been controversial for its intermingling of art and politics. Several notable names – Walter Scott and Philip Larkin among them – have turned down the offer (which offers in exchange an annual stipend and a large quantity of sherry). Ted Hughes had held the position for 14 years until his death in 1998; his successor was to be appointed by a New Labour government. Michael Glover, writing here in the New Statesman in 1999, speculates that this was the opportunity for a “People’s Poet”, or at least one more modern than the man who ended up in the job: Oxford-educated, committee-serving, awards-chairing Andrew Motion. This was supposed to be the new millennium, and yet, Glover writes, “the establishment has won again”.


“In our time no greater misfortune can befall an English poet than to be made Poet Laureate,” said Stephen Spender, not long before his death. William Burroughs, that American literary savage, thought the same: “A flawless poet is fit only to be a Poet Laureate, officially dead and imperfectly embalmed. The stink of death leaks out.”

This time around, the attitude towards this ill-paying post seemed to be different among public and poets alike. Though Ted Hughes’s laureate poems were themselves something of an embarrassment in an often brilliant career, he gave the job a lift that it hadn’t had this century because, unlike so many laureates before him, he had indeed been a good poet. With Hughes as laureate, the image was refurbished. The very idea of being a laureate was no longer felt to be toadyingly despicable or plainly ridiculous. Some poets were eager to have their names put forward as possible contenders. Though others – such as Tony Harrison and Seamus Heaney – were equally eager to express their unwillingness to be considered for the post, they gave sound republican reasons. Derek Walcott, the Nobel Laureate from St Lucia, seemed desperate to join what he regarded as a pantheon of heroes. Could the rules (but what exactly were the rules anyway?) be stretched to take in a poet from the Commonwealth?

  Emily Mortimer’s The Pursuit of Love is bold, barmy and never boring

[See also: From the NS archive: Mr Chamberlain’s fiasco]

Yes, there were good reasons, immediately after Hughes’s death, to feel that things might be a little different this time around. In the past, it was said to be the Palace that decided; but in fact, the Palace has always passed on the job to 10 Downing Street. It was, after all, a political appointment. Under New Labour, could there be such a thing as a People’s Poet, a communitarian voice of some kind which might help to bind up the psychic wounds of a nation? A modern …read more

Source:: New Statesman


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