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Monday, 19 May 2008

The Next Poet Laureate?

For those aware of the "divide" in British poetry, between a mainstream and a less main one, nothing is as likely to provoke gnashing of teeth than the Poet Laureate position - and those opposed to the Monarchy and British-Empire trappings might also be known to wail, too. One of the less-attractive elements of the world today, is that the media feeds us little literary stories we don't need, all-too-often, as if to remind us that we still love poetry (though "we" don't: there is no mass consumer interest in serious poetry anymore by contemporary figures).

The latest travesty in this department issued from The Observer yesterday (which, in the 60s really engaged seriously with poetry), who weighed in on the imminent retirement, after a good decade, of Andrew Motion as Blair's laureate. One wants to sigh, the "nice decade is over". Of course, Blair torpedoed Carol Ann-Duffy's boat last time, we are told in this creepy article, because of her lifestyle (lesbian, with a young child) - and it is somehow suggested all is forgiven, now - not because Brown has different values, but because Duffy is no longer in such a high-profile relationship - all spurious, too-personal, and rather offensive. Though, sad, if true - no laureate should be deslected, obviously, due to their sex, gender or faith (well, they no doubt would have to convert, like lovely Autumn Kelly from my home town of Montreal). Motion retires in 2009, so this is hardly a story now. But the article goes on to suggest the three front-runners are Duffy, Simon Armitage (44, ages are provided for some reason), and James Fenton (59). All three read for the Oxfam Life Lines series and CDs, and write very well. It's hard to suggest these are not worthy candidates. Other "popular" "female poets" are then mentioned, like Wendy Cope and Jenny Joseph. However, the part that struck me as overstated was this: "many of Britain and Ireland's reigning literary titans are men, among them (Craig) Raine, Seamus Heaney, Don Paterson and James Fenton". I am not sure Paterson, still relatively young, is a "literary titan" (yet) - and his colleague Sean O'Brien would, I am sure, have thought that list might include him too.

But, rather more glaringly, the list removed any sense of controversy, debate, or uncertainty as to the current UK canon - the sort of annoying "naturalising" that happens when the mainstream press treats poetry like horse racing, or celebrity chef TV. Where, for instance, is Geoffrey Hill, in this list? He actually believes in God and England, doesn't he? Well, maybe too much. Where is J.H. Prynne - isn't he titanic, too? Too left-leaning, one supposes, for The Observer's tastes. Where are Britain's superb Asian and Black poets? They haven't yet made this odd little titan list. Oh, well. In the meantime, having a female Poet Laureate would be a good thing.
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