Poet laureates

Or should that be ‘poets laureate’? I quite like the idea of there being an honorary poet who is forced to come up with public poetry – the requirement for writing ceremonial stuff about the royals seems to have gone out of the French windows. And, although I’ve never been really keen on Andrew Motion, I think he did surprisingly well. Far better than his predecessor, Ted Hughes, who seemed hell-bent on articulating some kind of mythic tradition, one which I don’t think anyone shared. No-one has really come up with the goods since Tennyson. But anything that gives money to poets (here we sit, starving) is a good thing, I think.

Most poet laureates have been forgotten, or relegated to trivia competitions – which have single-handedly retrieved Nahum Tate from complete obscurity (he was the man who gave ‘King Lear’ a happy ending, and, more popularly, wrote ‘While shepherd watched their flocks by night’ – so he has at least one composition in circulation). At the minute, the smart money for what is a ten-year post must be on either Simon Armitage or on Carol Ann Duffy. Armitage was the ‘millennium poet’, and he produced some acerbic material for that. Duffy is surprisingly good at writing the kind of accessible verse they’re looking for. If he wasn’t already the laureate of almost all things, Ian McMillan would do it well: no-one has brought more poetry to more people in the last ten or twenty years. His gigs are sold out, and he must be the only poet who appears on prime-time TV with doggerel, his own very eclectic show on Radio 3, and who still appeals equally to those with a taste for the arcane and the surreal, and those who like tub-thumping. If he can be the laureate of Barnsley FC and also Humberside police force, imagine what he could do for the country. There is also the very brilliant John Whitworth out there. And Wendy Cope, although she’s ruled herself out – Faber have rationed her work very cleverly. Behind the scenes, I suspect she is much more prolific.

The potential image of poet laureates has changed beyond recognition, because poetry has moved out of its closeted habitat, and into the world of performance, sometimes even stand-up comedy. There are so many writers to thank for this – Liz Lochhead, John Agard, Attila The Stockbroker, John Hegley, Joolz Denby, Roger McGough, and of course the late Adrian Mitchell – that it’s hard to know where to stop the list.

But I’m going to risk the jeers of fellow-poets, and say that I think that Pam Ayres was responsible for brushing quite a lot of the cobwebs off poetry. She’s not very fashionable as a poet, at least not among poets, but she was almost one of a kind when she set out with her cod-rhymes on an Oxford radio station in the 1970s. She probably blew what little street cred she had by writing jingles for the Meat Marketing Board (I think that’s right). And writing her kind of superior doggerel – I am warming very much to the word ‘doggerel’ – is not by any means as easy as it looks. And I still haven’t written the blog about light verse that I want to. The word ‘light’ is a real nuisance.

Anyway, in case Pam Ayres hasn’t applied, I’ve written her application for her.

Oh. I’d like to pen odes to the Queen,

And if I’d the nerve I would risk it,

That is, penning a paean, being ever so keen,

To a Duchy Original biscuit.


I’m sure I could crack out a canto

To her horses (at Ascot, o’ course) –

Oh yes I can, and yes I’ve done panto.

I’d write sonnets for every divorce.


With free verse I never shall flirt, see,

I’m no fly in Windsor’s old ointment,

But me poems would give a good curtsey

When they’re verses by royal appointment.


Oh give me that laureate wreath

For I’m the establishment’s pillar.

I could catch the next bus to Balmoral

And I’d even be chums with Camilla.


One Response to Poet laureates

  1. Rosalind says:

    I’ll second Bill’s plea for the job, ma’am
    In your crown he could be quite a jewel
    And despite his Republican leanings
    He went to a very good school

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