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Should the role of Poet Laureate be abolished?

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Ellen West - web producer | 16:52 UK time, Friday, 30 January 2009

In the light of Andrew Motion's comment that holding the job has interfered with his own writing, and Wendy Cope's suggestion that it should be abolished, many people are asking today what a Poet Laureate is for. The post doesn't pay well (£5,000 a year), nor does it seem to provide much inspiration for a modern poet; expecting a contemporary poet to write something for the Queen's birthday seems as anachronistic as demanding that they all write devotional verse.

There is, however, no contractual requirement for the poet to produce work about the Royal Family, and Andrew Motion's 'rap' produced for Prince William's 21st birthday must stand as a chilling example of how celebratory poetry can go badly wrong. Whatever was the case in the 17th century, artists today need to be working outside the political establishment; if their work is to mean anything they need to have the freedom to respond to events with subtlety, and to challenge received ideas.

Poetry picnic filmed as part of Omnibus: The Last Journey of John KeatsCan you identify these poets, filmed by the BBC back in 1995?

It's been suggested that Carol Ann Duffy wasn't made Poet Laureate back in 1999 because of her "alternative lifestyle": essentially that Downing Street felt that people wouldn't accept a homosexual appointee. This is just the sort of skewed reasoning that makes the Poet Laureateship seem so archaic. I was also horrified when back in September the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance removed Carol Ann Duffy's poem Education for Leisure from a GCSE anthology. It was a cowardly decision, taken in response to three complaints that the poem encouraged violence, when it clearly did the opposite. Instead of taking the chance to engage with students' experience of a violent society the issue was hidden. That it's a good poem seemed beside the point - it needed to tell young people what to think.

The consensus seems to be that Motion did an excellent job as an advocate for poetry, and I would feel sorry to see any reduction in the visibility of poetry in the UK, but this is a chance to do something more daring. Why don't we appoint somebody who is an excellent poet and just let them write what they want? The media love a hook, so their work will get more attention, but they won't have to wait to feel inspired by the Duke of Edinburgh.


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