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Poetry and predictions

Razia Iqbal | 18:11 UK time, Monday, 27 April 2009

By the end of this week, we will have a new Poet Laureate - the 19th since the post was first founded. All have been men, and this time, there is fevered speculation (in as much as this is possible in the genteel and rather private world of poetry) that this time, it will be a woman, which will be a first.

It's a strange post, appointed by the monarch, from a list of nominees compiled on behalf of the prime minister. The process by which the Laureate is chosen and some might argue, the post itself, is very secretive (time for a freedom of information request perhaps) and archaic.

The smart money is on Carol Ann Duffy, who narrowly lost out to Andrew Motion. He steps down as the first Poet Laureate to be in the post for a fixed term of 10 years; before him, the post was held until the incumbent died.

Philip Larkin and Seamus Heaney famously rejected it. And more recently, Wendy Cope did not want to be considered. John Dryden was sacked and John Betjeman was probably the best known of the modern poets.

For his part, Andrew Motion has enjoyed it, but is relieved to be getting on with the business of his "own" writing; he was not treated kindly for many of his eight poems over the decade, some deriding him for the paucity of his output.

But his greatest legacy is the online National Poetry Archive, which is a vast and successful project containing recordings of poets reciting their own work, and has dragged poetry into the multimedia age.

And his tireless efforts to re-define the role has given the next person in the role much to build on. Should it be Carol Ann Duffy? Or Simon Armitage? I would applaud either, but then I would also cheer if it was Jackie Kay, or Alice Oswald, or the brilliant Jamie McKendrick.

Should it be a black or Asian poet, a young one (one day, Caroline Bird should get it, though she may be too iconoclastic for such a thing!) or an elder statesman?

It would be a great pity if the role garnered interest now merely because it was given to a woman. It's the poetry that's important, surely, and the role it is allowed to play in national life.

It should be an excellent poet, who is good as being an advocate for popularising the form.


  • Comment number 1.

    I agree that the next poet should be chosen entirely on the merit of their poetry and nothing else. Positive discrimination only creates a new underclass. I would question whether the queen is the best judge, however.

  • Comment number 2.

    With the possible exception of Ted Hughes and a couple of others, Poet Laureates seem generally to have been selected for their mediocrity. As per usual,the front-runners are of the dreary, politely polished school of poets that have been ensuring UK poetry has been stuck in the early 1960s since…well, the early 1960s. Glumly self-satsified, nice and easy for GCSE English students to discuss what they are ‘about’, as if that was what you were supposed to do with poems.

    My fantasy shortlist – the ones that would be in the running if the appointment was really about interesting, high quality modern poetry: Geoffrey Hill (he’s getting on a bit, so it wouldn’t be like he’d be there for long), Luke Kennard, John Hartley Williams, Mark E Smith (well, a man can dream…).


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