Friday, 1 May 2009

Laureate thoughts

The announcement will be made in Manchester today. If the newspapers are correct - and they've been announcing this for a week - the new poet laureate will be Carol Ann Duffy.

Ten years ago, newspapers carried the story that Tony Blair had personally vetoed her appointment because of her relationship with Jackie Kay; apparently he didn't think Middle England was ready for a lesbian poet laureate. Back in 1999, when Blair was widely viewed with admiration, it shocked me that nobody made a fuss - and that Andrew Motion was willing to accept the post.

As a republican, I have serious doubt about the post but my favourite would have been U.A. Fanthorpe, whose death was announced last night. I suppose Blair would have vetoed her too on the grounds of her 44-year relationship with Rosie Bailey. He might even have vetoed her on the grounds of her poems, if he knew enough about poetry. In Fanthorpe's popular "Not My Best Side", the unpleasant young St George who, like any New Labour apparatchik, has passed all the right training courses and gained "diplomas in Dragon/ Management and Virgin Reclamation," insists that he has to kill for the sake of "job prospects/ In the spear- and horse-building industries". Finally the righteous defensiveness gives way to his real attitude: "What, in any case, does it matter what/ you want? You're in my way." Someone as sharp and perceptive as that might be too drily subversive for the laureate post.

I had the good fortune to encounter U.A. Fanthorpe (and Rosie Bailey) on a few occasions, usually at their readings. They were good readers. Rosie, a poet herself (published as R.V. Bailey) provided a second voice in U.A.'s poems. Readings were never over-solemn but always filled with jokes and wit, just like the volumes of poems. But I had the sense of a moral compass which could be sharply critical of injustice but was always courteous to fellow human beings. U.A. will be much missed.

Perhaps it was as well for her poetry she didn't gain the laureateship. Her poetry - which seems so quiet and direct but lingers to provoke thought - was free to take its own path. The constraints of the laureateship rarely suit poets. At least Carol Ann Duffy won't be limited to the trivia of royal weddings. There are bigger subjects to deal with: war, financial crises, pandemic, environmental disaster.

But these aren't necessarily the subjects that will be best for Duffy's poetry. Most poetry is oblique and celebrates language through an indirect engagement with contemporary events. Occasionally a poet is appointed whose talents mesh with the subjects requiring poems - Dryden, the first laureate, was genuinely concerned with writing poems about public events. But these days the poets who address big subjects directly - including the performance poets Benjamin Zephaniah and Linton Kwesi Johnson - probably haven't made the shortlist. A performance poet would fit the job well - imagine how a performed poem might liven up a coronation, royal wedding or the opening of parliament. An official performed poem might be a greater youtube success than Gordon Brown. A visual poet might be even more fun, livening up official documents or creating public, official installations.

But the laureateship remains an establishment post and I expect the Prime Minister prefers a poet whose work can be confined to the pages of a book. He was unlikely to be as adventurous as the city of Glasgow, which appointed Edwin Morgan as its first laureate.

I suppose I should feel relieved that, at last, a woman has been appointed. It's taken a long time - long before women were allowed to vote, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Augusta Webster were suggested as candidates for the role.

Congratulations to Carol Ann Duffy - and to every poet writing today. The laureateship is an entertaining sideshow. May society become more just and more merciful - and may poetry flourish.

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