Page last updated at 13:37 GMT, Friday, 8 May 2009 14:37 UK

Why poetry will never leave us

Carol Ann Duffy in John Rylands Library in Manchester
Duffy's appointment as laureate gave poetry a rare moment in the spotlight


The job of poet laureate might be difficult to define but it's an important role, because it's a public acknowledgment that the UK cares about language, says Clive James.

Poetry has been in the news lately. As the next Poet Laureate takes up her appointment, there have been headline stories, photographs, interviews. But poetry is never in the news for long. Not even in Elizabethan times was it front page news for more than a couple of days, even if Christopher Marlowe got stabbed in a pub or William Shakespeare broke all box office records with his new comedy that had a live dog in it.

Those who deplore the debased language of the modern age are always looking back to a time when poetry was a talking point. But Byron, though he got famous overnight, was already less famous the day after, and Tennyson, though everyone knew his name, was always less interesting to small boys than a new steam train. They wanted to drive that. They didn't want to be him.

Clive James

The laureate just has to be a poet and do whatever poets do, with a few bottles of sherry from the monarch to prove that the state respects poetry

Compared to the tumult of everyday reality, poetry is small-time stuff. But the great thing about poetry in Britain is that it is always there in the background. It was in the foreground last week only because of the handover from one laureate to the next. Andrew Motion, seemingly born to be an establishment figure, had given way to Carol Ann Duffy, on the face of it scarcely an establishment figure at all.

The transition having been accomplished, poetry will go back to the background. But it won't go away entirely. Britain doesn't officially celebrate Shakespeare's birthday, but it does, continually, celebrate Shakespeare's language, the English language. It's just that the continuous celebration is very quiet, with a toot on a cardboard trumpet, the tweet of a penny whistle, and a tap on a tin drum.

Seamus Heaney
Poetry compensates for the perfunctory nature of the world, says Seamus Heaney

The focus of this non-uproarious party is the laureateship. The laureateship is the centre around which almost nothing revolves, and has been since the time of Charles II. It wouldn't even matter if a hack had the job. It's the ritual that counts, and it's part of the ritual that it isn't very elaborate. The laureate doesn't have to walk backwards out of the monarch's presence, or indeed have to do anything.

Admirably performed, the duties of the outgoing laureate, Andrew Motion, were nearly all self-imposed. The laureate just has to be a poet and do whatever poets do, with a few bottles of sherry from the monarch to prove that the state respects poetry even though the state has no particular use for it from day to day. The diffidence of the post - just do us a poem whenever you feel like it, old boy, or in this case madam - is part of its stature.

Truck-driving opera buffs

More aesthetically-minded countries do without a poet laureate because they can't bear for art to matter so little. Italy is a far more artistic country than Britain. You will meet Italians of quite humble education who know the difference between Michelangelo and Raphael, and in the gallery at the opera during La Boheme you will see a truck-driver mouthing all the words of Rodolfo's first aria along with the tenor, and somewhere in the country there is always somebody, an accountant or a librarian, who can recite the whole of the Divine Comedy.

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But poetry isn't part of the state structure. This week, Italy's prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was served notice for divorce by his wife, who has finally had enough of his belief that a pretty face and a nice figure are good qualifications to stand as a European MP. But there is no Italian poet laureate sweating through the night while wondering how to dodge the duty of writing up this national crisis in a suitable poem.

If the Italians had the equivalent of a poet laureateship occupied by Carol Ann Duffy, she could have tackled the subject. A wonderfully accurate observer, Duffy could have started the poem with the details of the strange event which has been taking place on top of Mr Berlusconi's head for some years now without ever quite turning into a hair transplant.

Duffy has written a deservedly popular series of poems about great men seen from the viewpoint of their wives. She would be good at pretending to speak for Mrs Berlusconi, perhaps evoking the wronged wife's state of mind as it finally snapped under the strain of failing to protest about the discrepancy between her husband's hair arrangement and his evident belief that adolescent females were drawn to him by his physical charm.

For a long time I thought that poetry could be made more popular if it was banned in schools

When Duffy spoke for the wife of King Midas, she proved that she had one of the most precious qualities a poet can have: wit. What would it be like to serve King Midas with his dinner?

For starters, corn on the cob.

Within seconds he was spitting out the teeth of the rich.

Isn't that a fabulous little stretch of writing? So much happening in a flash. No wonder schoolteachers love teaching her poems. There's always a phrase to catch the attention even of the little boy with the pyromania problem. When someone speaks so wittily, it's impossible not to appreciate it, especially when you can't do it yourself. And even Carol Ann Duffy might have had to pick some of it up by example. She had a mentor, the poet mysteriously named U.A. Fanthorpe.

Poetry reading
Poetry readings are in good health

A schoolteacher who never published a poem until she was fifty, U.A. Fanthorpe had wit to burn. But being an essentially British poet she was quiet about it, so you had to go and find her. Fanthorpe was still not famous when she died at 79, on the same day Duffy took the post of laureate. I myself knew Fanthorpe for only a single poem, about Paolo Uccello's painting of St George. In the poem, St George, the dragon and the king's daughter all get to speak. The king's daughter speaks like this:

It's hard for a girl to be sure if

She wants to be rescued. I mean, I quite

Took to the dragon. It's nice to be

Liked, if you know what I mean. He was

So nicely physical, with his claws

And lovely green skin, and that sexy tail.

And the way he looked at me,

He made me feel he was all ready to

Eat me. And any girl enjoys that.

Partly inspired by Fanthorpe's example, Duffy has never been afraid to make her poems funny. It's lucky that Duffy is a dream to teach, because poetry still has to be taught. For a long time I thought that poetry could be made more popular if it was banned in schools, with possession of poetry regarded as a misdemeanour and dealing in it as a felony.

But I had forgotten that I had been taught poetry myself. In the Australian schools after WWII we were made to memorise a poem or we couldn't go home. Looking back on it, I am glad about that method, but it did amount to a prison regime, and others may have suffered. Indeed some of my classmates are probably still there, growing old in their desks, forever trying to remember what comes next after "I come from haunts of coot and hern."

Carol Ann Duffy
Duffy's work is widely taught in schools

There are better ways, and there could be better prizes. The bolder teachers could always remind their more precocious pupils that a memorised love poem is hard to beat as an instrument of seduction. But the best way, surely, is for the teachers to read out one of the phrases that drew them into a particular poem in the first place. Every good poem has at least one of them, the phrase that makes your mind stand on end.

I heard one of these yesterday, on a marvellous website called Poetry Archive, a creation for which Andrew Motion was partly responsible. On Poetry Archive you can hear the famous poets read out what they wrote. One of the poets is Richard Wilbur, the American poet who helped, fifty years ago, to do for me what Fanthorpe did for Duffy - provide an example. The Wilbur phrase that caught me this time, and took me back to when I was first under his spell, came from a little poem about mayflies. He visualises millions of them rising and sinking in the light, and he calls them "the tiny pistons of a bright machine".

I was knocked out, and I couldn't imagine anyone hearing that and not wanting to know more about Richard Wilbur. When they look him up, they will find that he was a soldier throughout the last campaigns of WWII from Cassino onwards, but when he came back from the slaughterhouse he hardly ever wrote about it. He preferred to write about mayflies. It's a reminder that it isn't the poet's job to keep in step with events. It isn't even the laureate's job.

Her job is to provide part of what Seamus Heaney called the redress of poetry. Poetry is part of the artistic compensation for the fact that the workaday world isn't artistic, and can't be. Sometimes the poet can respond to events only by waiting for the events to go away. In the short term, what happens to us in the world is all there is. In the long term, it's all an illusion, as Shakespeare told us when he gave us that farewell speech by Prospero as the old wizard lost the last of his power over his magic island,

And like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,

And, like this insubstantial pageant, faded,

Leave not a wrack behind.

Shakespeare was never asked to be poet laureate, a fact which reminds all laureates that it's just a job. But it's an important job, because its very existence, no matter who holds it, is an acknowledgment by the state that there is something a state can't control, which is the national memory, and that the national memory travels in the language, like an arrow shower, as Philip Larkin said, sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

A selection of your comments appears below.

What a load of twaddle. I would have thought Clive James had more sense. Poets are superfluous to today's society. They are about as much use as a chocolate fireguard. The barrel of sherry the Poet Laureate receives would be better used by soldiers fighting in Afghanistan rather than someone, not of this world, stringing words together and calling it "poetry"
Tommy Atkins, Flanders, Belgium

What a pleasing piece, one of my favourite commentators, commenting on one of my favourite poets!
Jenny Cook, Leicester

I presume the Poet Laureate is somehow paid for by the tax payer - surely in these troubled financial times the last thing those who are struggling to make ends meet want to hear is that they are paying for an outdated, outmoded, position which is more about pomp & ceremony than any real benefit to the country. Just more snouts in the trough, like the MPs, the royal family & the BBC which upholds their propaganda.
Ashley Hinton, Didcot, UK

G-d Bless Our New Poetess Laureate! Long may she floreate !
Steve Duke, Melbourne, Australia

You do not know and never will know a thing about me. Yet I put words together and have the joy that comes when now and then those words can make the sound of a wind blown bell, the warmth of a gentle kiss, the electricity of a welcomed embrace or the smell of honest sweat seem essential to one's understanding of truth and being. Would that my fire had been lit sooner. I am so grateful that many others were.
GB Henderson, Pownal, Maine - USA

I know little about the new Poet Laureate, but feel aggrieved that Britain's Greatest Living Poet has again been passed over, apparently because those in authority simply don't equate his gift with establishment poetry. Of course, I'm talking about Elvis Costello - he has been putting superb poetry to music for over 30 years now, with no official acknowledgement. But then, he probably wouldn't produce to order for a royal occasion something that would fit on a greetings card. But I'm Not Angry.
Mike O'Hara, Brighton, UK

There was a fine poet called Duffy

Who looked quite poetically scruffy

But her 'plain, 'simple' verse,

All demotic and terse

Was sharp, neat and cool, never fluffy.
Frank Upton, Solihull

I read Clive's remarks about poetry becoming perhaps more popular if it were banned with an ironic smile - my daughter finds it hilarious that Carol Ann Duffy has been honoured in this way as one of her poems has apparently been removed from a GCSE English anthology for its 'inappropriate content'!
David Beauchamp, Stafford, UK

The view that I, and so many other 16 year olds hold is that Carol Ann Duffy's poetry is awful! It is not relevant to anything, is irritatingly depressing and has no deeper meaning than what we, as students, apply to it. We spend hours every week in English Literature classes analysing poetry from Duffy and similar poets, picking out tiny details which we are told that the poet crafted specifically to mean something. This is not true, (for example) the poet put a certain word in because it is that word that is necessary to make the sentence complete, not to represent "the hatred that the subject of the poem has experienced throughout their life". To an English Literature GCSE candidate, it seems that the talents of Carol Ann Duffy have been blown widely out of proportion as it is US that are doing the hard work of trying to decipher hidden meaning from the complete drivel we are forced to read.
Dan, Bury

An interesting article. However, there are other things about poetry, how it is an integral part of our lives. It is after all how many children learn their mother tongue, through nursery rhymes, playing songs etc. Here in France, in primary school, they also have the learning-by-heart theory, poems, and also La Fontaine's Fables, and when they were younger, I spent hours with some, but not all of my children. But they all learnt. I don't know if it is part of the Scottish tradition, but I grew up with various family members writing poetry. My father's declarations of love over 58 years to my mother, at her birthday, valentine's day etc, are particularly beautiful. And my choice is poetry, for my father's 80th, my youngest brother's funeral etc. I love poetry, my own description is painting pictures with words.
Karen, Neuville les Dames/France

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