SHINING MORE BUT WEIGHING LESS: IS THIS THE FATE OF A POET LAUREATE?

Aside from the minor point that I’d never be asked, I’d hate to be Poet Laureate.

Obviously, once you’ve decided to accept the barrel of sherry, or whatever it is these days, in exchange for your soul, you have to do the job. When a monarch celebrates a jubilee or there’s a royal birth, marriage, or as in last week’s case, a death, then you have to sit down and do your best to write something meaningful and appropriate. And, I suppose, given you’ve been given the top job, you have to try to make it seem as if nobody else could write it.

Simon Armitage is obviously a very good poet. A fine reader of his poems, too, from my memory of being at an event at which he was the star turn long ago.

And by simply being Poet Laureate, his books sell better, so I get why he would accept the offer, assuming he cares how many they sell. He might even feel by taking the job he has the chance to make a difference. A bit strange, but I’ve heard it said.

The downside is that it is almost impossible to write anything useful and balanced – make that real – about the life of a monarch.

And sadly, if predictably, I thought his elegy for Elizabeth II dreary and forgettable. There were no lines or thoughts that stood out. It was pretty much what you’d expect a laureate to say. It was in the grand tradition of stuff written for patrons, living or otherwise, going back to when poets felt it necessary to fawn over the wealthy in order to put food on the table. (Try out the endless stream of well-written drivel from some of the seventeenth and eighteenth century poets to see what I mean.)

Armitage was on that old chestnut, a hiding to nothing, I suppose, but presumably he took the task seriously and did his best. If he didn’t, he should have, because as a laureate he’s going to have a ‘Collected Poems’ published, either late in his life or posthumously, and this poem may well be one readers will turn to in order to assess how good he was.

I’m sure he won’t care what I think, even if he were to find out. There will be plenty of friends and sycophants around to tell him this was a wonderful and entirely appropriate effort.

As I said, I found it unmemorable. The device of using each letter of her name to start the two sections was ok, I suppose, but there’s nothing clever in it. I used that same thing years ago in a critical newspaper analysis that acted as a response to a person who had been generally abusive for the whole week of the job. If you put the first letters of each paragraph together they read ANYTHING I CAN DO TO TIP YOU OVER THE EDGE. Childish fun, yes, petulant maybe, but it was not difficult to do.

In the end, though, after reading Armitage’s poem I ended up cross with myself. What had I expected? Why had I bothered to read it? My negativity isn’t really his fault. I am aware of how deeply some people have been moved by the death of the monarch and perhaps they have been in some way comforted by the poem. Who am I, who is not particularly moved by any event involving those who enjoy such vast hereditary wealth to the benefit of so few, to moan and whinge about what he wrote?

Maybe it’s because the need of writers to be patronised in one way or another has always fascinated me, since I first read all those poems dedicated to this dignitary or that so long ago. Maybe if it were a case of starving or having food on the table, I would have written some appalling guff to flatter the ego of some rich chap sitting on his country estate or in his London mansion. Given that this is not the case for most poets today, I don’t see the point in having a patron. I’m nobody’s serf. To extend the argument, I’m uncomfortable with grants being handed out to writers to give them time to write. Just write, for goodness’ sake. It’s far healthier if you don’t have to please anybody by doing it.

And maybe it’s because, if it’s to achieve anything worthwhile, I think the writing of poetry should be a pure art, not influenced by patronage, not influenced by what the poet thinks he or she is required to write, nor in what tone it should be written. Therefore, poems written in a sense of patronage are a betrayal of a basic artistic principle.

Others will disagree. And if you enjoyed Armitage’s poem, then you enjoyed it. Take no notice of the above!

AN ADDITION!!

Carol Ann Duffy’s decision to send out her own poem in honour of the Queen was, to me at least, just plain weird. Er, you’re not poet laureate any more, Ms Duffy, so why would you want to do that?

Do we have some kind of competition going on here? She may not see it this way, or at least admit to it, but it smacks of ‘I’m a better poet than you, I should still be poet laureate, I should be writing this tribute, not you’ stuff. Even if she felt the urge to write it, did she not see how it might look?

Unlike the Armitage poem, which I read with a strange sense of curiosity, I have no intention of reading Duffy’s attempt. I don’t see the point in her writing it, as she’s no longer obliged to, or me reading it, as how good or nice a person the Queen might have been is of no interest to me.

All very odd.

4 thoughts on “SHINING MORE BUT WEIGHING LESS: IS THIS THE FATE OF A POET LAUREATE?

  1. Interesting piece, Bob. My (admittedly simplistic) view is that I find the idea of the PL role innately flawed because because it’s awarded to our ‘best’ poet, as if it’s some kind of meritocracy, whereas the concept of monarchy implicitly says that the monarch (and their family) is chosen, and therefore superior to everyone else, entirely because of birth, not deeds. Also, the weight of expectation is ridiculous. I bet that, by contrast, the Master (sic) of the King’s/Queen’s Music(k) presumably doesn’t have to knock out a tone-poem for every significant royal occasion. (I better stop before I start properly ranting.)

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  2. Thanks Matthew. The idea of giving the job to our ‘best poet’ is daft and I enjoy thinking of the outrage it caused when George II made Colley Cibber the Poet Laureate. Cibber was an awful poet but a marvellous drinking and dining companion. Sounds like a fine chap. I think I’d have looked forward to reading his terrible efforts on royal occasions. Maybe we should have given E J Thribb (Aged 17) the job. If you can find his Elegy to Haile Sellasie, it’s worth the effort!

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  3. I’m not a poet but totally agree with the arguments here. Poet Laureate sounds like an outdated title from the Elizabethan age or the Italian Renaissance. It would be more fun now if such a title had to be won by skill with the sword and the style of your cloak. Rivals for the title might challenge you to a duel in a courtyard behind the Globe or betray you to the Queen or King with the risk a subsequent beheading, accompanied by the mob booing and making mockery of your stanzas. Or simply failure to please your royal patron with your verse might mean an exile to a distant castle in France. That would add a little spice to the role. That would be glamorous. Imagine the Poet Laureate being discovered plotting against the current monarchy. Arrested in possession of a republican membership card. Fun! But sadly, it is a title that has no meaning in the modern nature of things.

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