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Monday, February 1, 1999 Published at 16:19 GMT


Who's in line for Poet Laureate?

Ted Hughes, the last Poet Laureate, died in October 1998

Arts Correspondent Nick Higham ponders on the next likely Poet Laureate.

The day after he was appointed Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman was asked what he thought of a Guardian editorial which criticised his appointment. Was he, as the Guardian alleged, "arbitrary and irrelevant"?

[ image: Sir John Betjeman: Didn't mind being thought of as
Sir John Betjeman: Didn't mind being thought of as "irrelevent"
"Yes," he replied, "thank God."

The post of Poet Laureate has had a chequered history. Some great poets have held it, including Wordsworth (though his best work had been written long before) and Tennyson. Some would put the last Laureate, the late Ted Hughes, in the same category.

But there have been plenty of duffers, too. Alfred Austin (Laureate 1896-1913) is remembered principally for the awful lines, written of some royal illness: "Across the wires the electric message came, He is no better, he is much the same."

In the words of Hermione Lee, Professor of English at Oxford University, who now recalls Laurence Eusden (1718-30), Colley Cibber (1730-57) or Henry Pye (1790-1813) for anything except the ridicule of greater poets who dismissed them as vain, drunk or incompetent?

Time for a rethink

[ image: Is the Poet Laureate just a
Is the Poet Laureate just a "court stooge"?
In the past the Laureate, paid just £70 a year and with no formal duties, has produced "occasional poems" on events like Royal weddings, christenings and birthdays. Some of the last verse Ted Hughes wrote was a ten-line poem to mark the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales.

To some, like Professor Lee and the poet, critic and avowed republican Tom Paulin, the time has come to rethink the Laureateship. What we need, they say, is a people's poet, an ambassador for poetry. The post, according to Paulin, should spread the gospel of poetry through readings, lectures and public appearances. Its links with the monarchy should be severed, or at least diminished.

Professor Lee says the Laureate has become a "court stooge", writing poems about the Queen's corgis or the death of the Queen Mother. She'd prefer the holder of the post to promote the role of poetry in our culture, visit schools, and write verse which addresses issues like Europe and devolution.

Indeed, there's no obvious reason why the Poet Laureate has to write poems to order at all. America has a Laureate, Robert Pinsky, and no-one expects him to turn out odes on the impeachment of the President. Instead he gives lectures and readings, and sees his role as enhancing the importance of poetry in American life.

He finds the British version of the post frankly baffling. To him, writing poems for a family, even a Royal Family, is a strange and an alien idea. "I serve the representatives of the people," he says, "I don't serve a family."


[ image: Derek Walcott: Holds the Nobel Prize for Literature]
Derek Walcott: Holds the Nobel Prize for Literature
The signs are that Tony Blair's government also sees the case for change. There are proposals for the next Laureate to be appointed for a limited term of just five or ten years, to be paid a proper salary, perhaps to receive a "grace and favour" home.

Half a dozen organisations have been asked for their views, and for suggestions about who should fill the post. These include the Royal Society of Literature, the Poetry Society, the Royal Literary Fund, the Society of Authors and The British Council. The Arts Council's literature panel called a special meeting at the end of January to discuss the issue.

Downing Street plays down the suggestion of a New Labour shake up of an ancient, fuddy-duddy institution. What's intended, we're told, are subtle changes, not a big bang.

[ image: Benjamin Zephaniah is an outside bet]
Benjamin Zephaniah is an outside bet
But few voices have been raised in support of the status quo. There are fears that a Laureate with a salary, a job description, a secretary, fax and phone would become just another bureaucrat.

One out-and-out critic of change, Michael Schmidt, who runs the poetry publishers Carcanet, believes we're in danger of destroying the mystique of the post. It could be politicised in the service of a republican notion of the state. Poets might even end up competing publicly, with all the political paraphernalia of primaries and Monica Lewinsky-style scandals.

Indeed, the private lives of few poets bear close scrutiny. One thing seems certain: Downing Street is investing too much in the search for a new Laureate and sees too much potential symbolism in the post to want a candidate with skeletons in their cupboard.

Runners and riders

[ image:  ]
There is no obvious front-runner. On the basis of the shortlists so far submitted to Downing Street, half a dozen names have emerged. The favourite is Wendy Cope, whose poems are witty and accessible and who'd be the first woman Laureate - but whom some dismiss as too lightweight.

The leading heavyweight is Derek Walcott, born in St Lucia and already the holder of the Nobel Prize for Literature. He'd be the first black Laureate - and if he got the job he'd set another precedent, as the first who wasn't also a British citizen.

The Yorkshire-born Tony Harrison and U A Fanthorpe (championed by the Guardian) are also in the running. So too are James Fenton, Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and Andrew Motion - initially the first name many thought of after Ted Hughes's death last year. He is, in the words of one observer, "a courtier", who'd perform the traditional role with dignity and aplomb.

Other names in the frame include the Rastafarian Benjamin Zephaniah, the popular Liverpool poet Roger McGough (another "lightweight") and the performance poet John Hegley.

Our tip for the job: Ursula Fanthorpe. She's the right age (60). She's spent her life in two professions close to New Labour's heart - education and the health service, as a teacher and a hospital out-patients' clerk - and she's an accomplished occasional poet as her verses on Prince Charles's 50th birthday proved. She also writes the kind of verse which is readily understood and frequently both touching and wryly amusing.

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