The poet laureate should be freed from the dreary royals and sent off to Bradford or Iraq
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* Mark Ravenhill
* The Guardian,
* Monday September 15 2008
* Article history
Up and down this green and drizzly isle, the poets are getting nervous. Nibs, once tranquil, are shaking. Wendy Cope is stocking up for a long siege. Craig Raine is exploring the possibility of moving to Mars. Linton Kwesi Johnson and Liz Lochhead are appealing for complete identity changes and round-the-clock police protection under a hastily drafted Poet Protection Scheme.
The poets are panicking because Andrew Motion, the current laureate, is counting the days until his royal duties are over. At least the task is not as onerous as it once was: our national poet is no longer condemned to clasp the royal quill until death. Now it's a mere 10-year sentence, muzzled in a drafty palace. Truly, of all the rusty chalices that clatter around in public life, there is none more thoroughly poisoned than the post of poet laureate.
After a decade in which he has miraculously given the post a little dignity, the poetry is, it would seem, no longer in Motion. Speaking at the Ealing arts festival recently, the Queen's pet bard revealed that the role had been "incredibly thankless" and had left him with writer's block. While many of us have admired the way Motion has used his position to promote the writing and reading of poetry, few are likely to remember with any great fondness the work he produced while in the post, particularly the rap-inspired offering he presented for Prince William's 21st birthday. And Motion's ceremonial verses don't seem to have done much to enthuse the house of Windsor either: the poet reported that, after Judi Dench's reading of his offering for the royal diamond wedding celebrations, all he got from the Queen was a curt thank you.
Laureates have been a mixed bag over the years, from the few who were sublime - Dryden, Wordsworth - to the many who were ridiculous and are barely remembered. John Betjeman was the last laureate who truly seemed to fit the role of house poet for a family with no taste. And we're unlikely to find someone now who can combine suburban snobbery and jangling verse as Betjeman once did. Created by James I, the position was almost laid to rest in 1896. Following Tennyson's successful 45-year stint, many suggested that no one could better him. Gibbon had already written of "abolishing this ridiculous custom". William Morris turned down the invitation to succeed Tennyson and that, it seemed, was that. But then Alfred Austin (no, me neither) took up the quill. And so the "ridiculous custom" staggered into the 20th century.
I'm not against the position of public poet. In fact, I think poetry could benefit from a more public role. Poetry has increasingly become a record of individual moments of private reflection and personal epiphanies, but it still has the potential to be a great vehicle for profound questions about national identity and our collective history. The Irish poet Brendan Keneally, in his brilliant collection Cromwell, creates a modern narrative that, with humour and anger, explores the echoes of history that ring around the streets of contemporary Dublin. It is as much a national epic as The Faerie Queen was four centures before.
But we're not going to get national epics or searching questions about collective identity by shackling a poet to the House of Windsor. The link between God, crown, country and people was always, of course, a shaky one. But it was a great construct in which to write national poetry. And then Queen Victoria invented a new model of monarchy: a model that attempted to present the royals as just another cosy middle-class family. The ridiculous banality of this royal rebranding finally killed the potential of any serious poet being inspired by the monarch.
So let's not twist the arm of one of our best poets and expect them to endure the same miseries as Motion. Instead, let's use the changing of the bard as a chance to rewrite the job description. We should start with the title: "national poet" would be better. And let's give the new national poet access to national life: from the forces in Iraq to the mosques of Bradford. Let's make sure they're present when we make discoveries about sub-atomic particles and host the Olympics. And let's invite him or her to the christenings, birthdays and marriages of ordinary people across the country. We couldn't, and shouldn't, dictate what they write. But, if we make a major poet part of our national life, we must surely end up with an artist who enjoys the post far more than Motion and who might just be inspired to write some great public poetry. But the "ridiculous custom" must come to an end as soon as Motion hands in his quill.