Fleur Adcock: Noises Off (Independent)
In 2009, Andrew Motion's 10-year stint is up and the quest for the next composer of poems for state occasions and royal birthdays is on. But who would want to do it?
Sunday, 14 September 2008
This week Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate, complained, first, that his prestigious position had drained him of his muse and, second, that the Queen never expressed an opinion of his work.
The job, he added, had been "very, very damaging".
"I dried up completely about five years ago and can't write anything except to commission," he went on. I do sympathise.
Andrew's 10-year tenure expires next year, and many poets, including myself, have been canvassed by newspapers and other media on whether we would take the role. I'm sure it's going to be difficult next time. I've never spoken to anybody who said: "Yes, I'd love to."
It's not that I object to the Royal Family, or the Queen. She gave me a gold medal for poetry two years ago and does a very good job.
Nor do I think the role of Poet Laureate is obsolete. It's like the monarchy: one wouldn't want to do away with it entirely. One good thing about it is it's attached to the palace, not No 10.
Where I sympathise with Andrew is that it's now in reality two roles. It harnesses two rather uncomfortable partners, two different functions – one of promoting poetry and one of writing poems – and these attract two different types of personality. One thing Andrew complains about is that it's been damaging to his writing. If you're doing a lot of public promotion stuff, you can't do your own work. You think in critical mode rather than creative mode. To write, you need to sit down and just stare out of the window, waiting.
When I started writing poetry as a child, I thought you hid quietly in your room and got on with it in private. Having to put on your best clothes and go to the palace, or get up on platforms with microphones, is a public thing and demands an extrovert personality. I'd rather slop around at home in my old jeans, writing. Of course, I do poetry readings, and I also read in schools and invite discussion. It's easier to answer questions on your own work than to initiate public projects and worthy schemes.
I've been judging an awful lot of poetry competitions this year, and that also distracts you from writing poetry. Nor would I want to be constantly rung up by the people who must be always ringing Andrew asking him to appear somewhere or pronounce on this or that. I can see how it occupied too much of his mental space.
I'm surprised he didn't foresee this. Surely it is inevitable that the laureateship would leave no room for the muse, or inspiration, or whatever you wish to call it. Nor does it pay very much in compensation.
I think perhaps the Poet Laureate should be someone charged solely with promoting poetry, not necessarily with writing it. The person would have to be a poet – you can't get inside it unless you do it – but there are plenty of poets.
The actual writing of poems could be commissioned on a case-by-case basis from other poets. It's perfectly possible to write to a commission. I'm quite often asked to write a poem for someone's birthday, good cause, charity, or whatever, and you just dredge around in your mind for something that's floating there already and attach it to the subject. There could be poems on some other national events – even the Olympics. But you wouldn't want to do too much of it.
One of the difficulties when writing public poems is getting the tone right. Quite often you have to be solemn or reverent. When you're writing in your own natural tone of voice, you go through all the moods and types of language – you can be funny, rude, ironic, serious, and everything else. I can't imagine writing warmly about Prince Andrew's wedding, but I could have written about the Queen's 80th birthday because that's such a broad subject – you can bring in other aspects of her reign.
Andrew said the Queen had failed to say whether or not she liked his poems. Among her many qualities, I don't think critical appreciation of poetry is prominent. But he did say that Camilla wrote a note thanking him for his poem about her wedding to Charles, and I know the Queen Mother was interested in poetry. It just depends who you get.
I don't envy Andrew, but I think he's done a wonderful job promoting poetry. As for the poems he's had to write, all I can say is that I sympathise.
Fleur Adcock's 'Poems 1960-2000' is published by Bloodaxe