When a poet laureate dies, it may be time to take stock. What is the meaning of the role, and has it a place in our society? And why have so many of them been such awful poets?
Although many would argue that the first laureate was John Dryden, appointed by Charles II in 1668, in fact it goes much further back than that - there was a versificator regis to the court of Henry II, a court poet whose role it was to celebrate the triumphs of kingship and to turn out fine verses for grand civic occasions. And that, essentially, has remained the job definition to this day.
Dryden was an unusually good poet by the standards of later laureates. A professional writer all his life, he was driven on, in his own memorable words, by "the vocation of poverty". After that, most of the holders of the post have been objects of ridicule - execrable, off-the peg versifiers. Wordsworth was appointed to the job, but not until he was poetry-dead at 72; and Tennyson was fairly reluctant to take over, eventually agreeing because he was promised, when dining out, that he would always be "offered the liver-wing of a fowl". And why not a single woman? Well, that's part of the larger question of why Emily Bronte had to publish her poems under the name of Currer Bell, and why George Eliot had to sell herself as George.
Even Ted Hughes didn't make much of a success of the job. His only impressive laureate poem, written in 1984 about the christening of Prince Harry, succeeded because it was actually about elemental matters (a great storm in Devon) and only incidentally about royals. The difficulty, as I see it, is that laureates are supposed to toady to order but poetry, and especially the poetry of our own century, is a wilful and refractory medium. So why did Hughes take it on? Well, because he held some obscure though sincerely held views about monarchy and political stability.
There are two quite separate issues here: the celebration of monarchy and the ability to write verses on themes of civic importance. Given that it is Tony Blair, not the palace, that holds the whip hand when it comes to the next appointment, perhaps a laureate who was agnostic about the role of the monarchy would be acceptable, provided there was proof that he was capable of writing verses which address public/political/civic themes. In this case, Tony Harrison and James Fenton might be contenders. Harrison has the gift of writing to order and Fenton can write brilliantly about questions of civic responsibility, as in "German Requiem". Carol Ann Duffy has written caustically about public matters - money and sex, for example. And then there's Wendy Cope - beautifully accessible, though perhaps not quite copious enough.
But my money is on the smoothly uncontroversial Andrew Motion. Who can doubt his influence? Will his name, for instance, be current at the Arts Council? It cannot fail to be because, having been until recently chairman of its literature panel, he is now a full member of the council. Will there be a problem of name recognition at the Poetry Society? Not at all. He held the position of editor of its journal some years ago. Will the Royal Society of Literature regard him as a suitable candidate? Well, he has already been elected a fellow of that august body, and it would be churlish of them to ignore their own. Will publishers admire his work? Undoubtedly. Some years ago he stopped being published by Carcanet Press of Manchester and was taken on by the venerable Faber and Faber. He has also been chairman of the judges of the annual T S Eliot prize, sponsored so generously by Mrs Eliot herself and others.
But what of his fitness, temperamentally, to write poetry of praise or condolence on national themes? He had a wet run at giving expression to public grief in the Times, when the princess of most of our hearts met her untimely end. And, after Ted Hughes's death, Motion called him in the Times "one of the greatest poets of all time", and one moreover who "gave us a vision of England which manages to bring the whole of the history and the traditional past into play with a present that is recognisably modern". Had the poems in his books by Hughes been different from the ones in mine?
Still, no one could fail to admire such vaulting feats of hyperbole. This, surely, is the poet in whose times any uncertainly foundationed heir to a bostik and plywood throne might pray to be living. Everything seems set fair, then.