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Friday, 30 January 2009

Cope Can't

Wendy Cope has been quoted by the BBC as suggesting the position of poet laureate be binned (or banned). What a pity. Cope - one of the truly beloved poets in the UK of the last 40 years (in the company of Larkin, Hegley and Hughes in terms of public esteem) - often uses her public profile in ways that endorse a conservative view of the world - witness her public opposition to copyleft poetry online.

I admire her a great deal, and consider her a friend, but often find myself disagreeing with her opinions, if rarely disagreeing with her poems. Ironically, she seems to undermine her own position - that poets should write poems, not become statement-machines - by actually being that rare thing - a poet the press and people want to hear from, on any number of topics, not all of them poetic. Anyway, her latest jibe at the poet laureate position is, I think, sad, because she would have made a great one. She's wrong, in my book, to think the "role" of the poet is merely to "write poems". In this wired age, where intertextuality, education, and the Internet, fuse ceaselessly, poets are, above all else, master communicators - and what a "poem" is is expanding.

As Broadband moves into every UK home in 2012, what new forms of hybrid poems may emerge - ever-more performative, digital, or multidimensional? A poet laureate needs to reach out, I think, to several communities - the young, who need to believe poetry can speak to them, and also, the educated and well-off, who more and more tend to prefer novels, plays, and films, to a good collection of poems. A third community is the disenfranchised - a poet laureate can speak to and from the margins, of class or wealth as well. I have tried to speak to all three of these communities as Oxfam's poet-in-residence, 2004-0ngoing, through various events, and CDs etc. Ultimately, Andrew Motion made the position viable again, and very 21st century. Cope's complaint seems very last-century, and does much to undermine what could be an increasingly innovative and wide-reaching remit.
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