Sunday, 22 March 2009

The Great Poet Boreateship Debate

In which, after employing a bad pun in the title, our blogger indulges in a Brooker-esque ejection of bile about the continuing press babble ... paradoxically adding to the mountain of superfluous words that have already been sacrificed to the great poet laureate debate.

There was a time when people in the media wrote about all sort of fancy things. There was a time when poetry did not even make the book section of national newspapers. There was a time when people I met found out I liked poems and mocked me, shunned me or patted me on the head as if it was a great wonder I had managed to get along like a normal human being. Those happy days are gone. Now the only thing anyone cares about is who is going to be the next Holder of an Archaic Monarchical Office that Impairs Creativity and Causes Poetry to be Belittled in the Public Eye, to give it its full, official name. Don't get me wrong, I am against the role entirely. In my time the laureates have done some great things for poetry: the Poetry Archive is fantastic and I hope it continues to expand, but we don't need royal permission for websites (Poetcasting is good example of how a similar--and in many ways more diverse though smaller-scale--project can be gotten off the ground without the Queen's help.)

Here comes the Romanticism bit...

The only plus to the furore I can see is that it makes a handy point of modern reference when I show visitors Wordsworth's royal warrant and tell them how Robert Peel himself wrote to convince him to take the laureateship in 1842. Wordsworth had turned down the post twice. The official line, I believe, is that he thought a younger poet should take up the position rather than any antipathy toward the role. When he did finally agree to the laureateship it was under the stipulation that he didn't have to write any official poetry unless the inspiration took him. And so he spent seven years not writing official poetry. At this stage in the tour I make a joke about how laureates would probably like it to be that way now. Sometimes it even gets a laugh. The fact is it was different. In Wordsworth's time poetry was revered by the public, a poet was a great figure; manly, inspiring and relevant. It wasn't his job to make people care about poems, but that's the way the office has been interpreted in recent years. But is the best way of encouraging debate, pluracy and engagement with poetry--hell, of just getting people to read it--to have a figurehead? Or are the internet forums and blogs, the journals, the increasing culture of putting poetry into and onto buildings and landscapes a better route.

So, I don't care whether the person appointed is male, female, straight, gay, black, white, English, or actually any good. I don't think the office is going to be scrapped. It may be renamed and the process for appointment may be changed. But when the next person asks me who I think it should be, I'll tell them as I have told everyone else that I hope it's someone I don't admire, so that I'm not pained by their acceptance, possible decline and inevitable embarrassment. I couldn't sneer at anyone I knew or liked taking it because for most poets £5000 is a fortune. And they might take the role willingly, enthusiastically and light-heartedly--realising that it's not the beginning and end of contemporary poetry.

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