So, Simon Armitage is the new Poet Laureate. Yes, I know everybody except, apparently, Imtiaz Dharker wanted it to be Imtiaz Dharker and it is a shame that a role that has been wall-to-wall white men since its inception, with just a tiny blip from Carol-Ann Duffy, has reverted to being wall-to-wall white men so soon again, but, that aside, Armitage is a decent enough choice. I feel a bit like I do at the end of the Eurovision Song Contest every year – Denmark is catchy enough and I’m not gutted they won, but I’d rather it had been Armenia. But I don’t want to get into the debate about whether or not Armitage was the right choice – I want to get into the debate about whether we should have a Poet Laureate at all.
It’s easy to eye-roll. The Laureateship is notoriously a poisoned chalice. Few Poet Laureates have written much decent work while in post. Some have written truly execrable work while in post – verses trotted out to suck up to the Queen on the occasion of royal births and marriages tend to be high-end versions of Hallmark greetings card poetry, with all the anodyne mediocrity of a local paper obituary notice rhyme. Poems that aim to speak for the whole community are hard to pull off at the best of times and usually only work when they emerge spontaneously, not when you have the pressure of knowing it’s your job to churn this sort of stuff out. There are exceptions – Tennyson produced “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in his role as Laureate – but John Masefield apparently used to enclose a stamped-addressed envelope when he submitted his Laureate poems to The Times, in case they weren’t any good and they wanted to reject them and, while this is a reflection of his modesty, not their quality (Masefield was, as someone on my Facebook page has just reminded me, an extremely fine poet), many people share his lack of confidence in the ability of Britain’s Official Poet to produce the goods.
It’s not true, however, as I frequently see argued on social media, that the Poet Laureate is “the Queen’s private poet” – a lackey of the Establishment who has to write to order. The Poet Laureate has not, since the time of Wordsworth, been obliged to write anything while in post and neither the Queen nor the Government puts in requests.
It’s also probably true, as at most slams, that the best poet never wins. Colley Cibber was widely regarded as a shite poet even in his own time, but somehow got the nod. Nahum Tate, now most famous for having rewritten King Lear to give it a happy ending, wasn’t much better, but also got chosen. Much as I have a soft spot for Betjeman, he will hardly be remembered as a Titan of 20th-century poetry by future generations.
It has never been an uncontroversial role – Browning’s 1845 poem “The Lost Leader” is one long passive-aggressive jibe at the once anti-monarchist radical Wordsworth for selling out by accepting the role – and its associations with monarchy and Empire have made it unpalatable to many. Benjamin Zephaniah recently asserted “I won’t work for them. They oppress me, they upset me, they are not worthy” and Seamus Heaney turned it down partly on political grounds in 1999 (although, given his response to being included in an anthology of “British” poets in 1982 was an indignant “My passport’s green/No glass of ours was ever raised/to toast the queen”, it was fairly tone-deaf to offer it to him in the first place).
And there will always be debate over how “academic” or “populist” the choice should be. I recently saw a spoken word poet arguing on social media that Carol-Ann Duffy had been a “terrible choice” as she was “too inaccessible and elitist”, and yet I remember that at the time many were sniffy about her appointment on the grounds that she was too lightweight and populist. You will never be able to please everybody and it is arguable that in trying to, you may end up with a middlebrow, safe choice that pleases nobody (not, I hasten to add, the case with Armitage or Duffy, but that could explain Tate and Cibber).
I still feel it’s a worthwhile role to have, though. I admire the way that Carol-Ann Duffy has reimagined the role as poetry’s national cheerleader and put the focus on education work and promoting other poets rather than on her own work. I also admire the way that Andrew Motion before her changed the emphasis from poems for the Royal Family to poems for the nation. This interview with him on the drawbacks and pressures of the role is, I think, rather interesting. The role is evolving into something other than a docile minion of the Establishment and it is in the power of whoever is Laureate at any given time to speed up that process of evolution.
More than anything, though, I think it is worth having a Poet Laureate, because the appointment of a Poet Laureate is usually the only time when an item about poetry gets into the mainstream newspapers or on the telly and even people who have never heard of any other poets have heard of the Poet Laureate. That kind of public platform is useful if you want to bring poetry to the masses.
I remember when I was about ten I told my mum that I liked writing poems at school, she said to me, “Maybe you’ll be the Poet Laureate when you grow up”, and that became a burning ambition for me. My mum didn’t know of any other poets who did poetry as a job – I doubt if she could name more than one or two contemporary poets other than Betjeman – but she’d heard of him because of the Laureateship and was able to give me an aim to encourage me in my new-found interest. It’s easy for people from backgrounds where the arts are taken for granted to mock the idea of a Poet Laureate, but the Laureateship’s public prominence means it’s seen by people who wouldn’t otherwise be aware that a life in poetry is possible.