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4 May 2021

From the NS archive: Just the poet to make us yawn again

24 May 1999: Ted Hughes made the Poet Laureateship seem exciting. But for his successor New Labour has gone to a tired, old, Oxbridge voice.

By Michael Glover

The position of Poet Laureate in England – that is, the national poet ostensibly chosen by Buckingham Palace, but in fact, in recent decades, nominated by the Government and approved by the Queen – has long been controversial for its intermingling of art and politics. Several notable names – Walter Scott and Philip Larkin among them – have turned down the offer (which offers in exchange an annual stipend and a large quantity of sherry). Ted Hughes had held the position for 14 years until his death in 1998; his successor was to be appointed by a New Labour government. Michael Glover, writing here in the New Statesman in 1999, speculates that this was the opportunity for a “People’s Poet”, or at least one more modern than the man who ended up in the job: Oxford-educated, committee-serving, awards-chairing Andrew Motion. This was supposed to be the new millennium, and yet, Glover writes, “the establishment has won again”.

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“In our time no greater misfortune can befall an English poet than to be made Poet Laureate,” said Stephen Spender, not long before his death. William Burroughs, that American literary savage, thought the same: “A flawless poet is fit only to be a Poet Laureate, officially dead and imperfectly embalmed. The stink of death leaks out.”

This time around, the attitude towards this ill-paying post seemed to be different among public and poets alike. Though Ted Hughes’s laureate poems were themselves something of an embarrassment in an often brilliant career, he gave the job a lift that it hadn’t had this century because, unlike so many laureates before him, he had indeed been a good poet. With Hughes as laureate, the image was refurbished. The very idea of being a laureate was no longer felt to be toadyingly despicable or plainly ridiculous. Some poets were eager to have their names put forward as possible contenders. Though others – such as Tony Harrison and Seamus Heaney – were equally eager to express their unwillingness to be considered for the post, they gave sound republican reasons. Derek Walcott, the Nobel Laureate from St Lucia, seemed desperate to join what he regarded as a pantheon of heroes. Could the rules (but what exactly were the rules anyway?) be stretched to take in a poet from the Commonwealth?

[See also: From the NS archive: Mr Chamberlain’s fiasco]

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Yes, there were good reasons, immediately after Hughes’s death, to feel that things might be a little different this time around. In the past, it was said to be the Palace that decided; but in fact, the Palace has always passed on the job to 10 Downing Street. It was, after all, a political appointment. Under New Labour, could there be such a thing as a People’s Poet, a communitarian voice of some kind which might help to bind up the psychic wounds of a nation? A modern Poet Laureate, surely, wouldn’t need to jump through those old-fashioned hoops, or blow rhetorical fanfares over some mewling child’s christening…

Alas, we have been disappointed, and the idea of a new kind of laureateship has been betrayed. New Labour has opted for something desperately tame in Andrew Motion. None of the straw polls conducted showed him raising more than the faintest flicker of support from the general public. Carol Ann Duffy or even Ursula Fanthorpe, both marvellous lesbian poets, were a much more exciting prospect. But the establishment has won again.

How did this happen? For a start, the process of selection was never going to be genuinely open and democratic. I discovered that from the letter, dated 3 November 1998, that was sent by John Holroyd, secretary for appointments at 10 Downing Street, to Chris Meade, director of the poetry society, soon after Hughes’s death: “I shall, on behalf of the Prime Minister, be carrying out the usual consultations on the new Poet Laureate.”

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Plainly enough put, then. There would be consultations indeed – and Meade, who had inquired about those procedures and was keen to be involved, was among the ones consulted. But, in the end, the decision would be – whose exactly? Why, 10 Downing Street’s, of course.

[See also: From the NS archive: Man and his environment]

But, New Labour politics apart, the explanation is also to do with the way in which poetry works. Poetry is a fairly mysterious art. Poems are often closed books to any but the most ardent adepts, and poets themselves inscrutable beings who are generally regarded as gnomic and eccentric. Few of them earn much money from their writing, and few manage to sell many copies of their books. For a poet, the key to success is the slow and often backdoors building of a reputation, so that when the decision of who is to be in or out is made, the winner is already waiting, self-struck medal in hand, at the winning post.

This is the way things seem to have been with Motion. Twenty years ago he was a lecturer in English at Hull University. He was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of Philip Larkin there, and to become his friend. He went on to write his official biography. Since then he has scarcely put a foot wrong – his poetry reviewing has always praised the right people, such as Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. (How fulsomely he wrote of Hughes at the time of the publication of Birthday Letters!) Having been chairman of the Arts Council literature panel, he is currently a full member of the Arts Council itself. He is also professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia. He has been chairman of the Poetry Society and editor of its journal, the Poetry Review. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He has been chairman of the judges of the TS Eliot award. Would any of the people he became friendly with in the course of all this feverish committee work have been consulted about his suitability as a candidate for the laureateship? We shall never know, because Downing Street is unlikely to tell us.

[See also: From the NS archive: Extreme environment]

But what disappoints most of all is how smarmily safe he seems to be as a choice; how contrary his instincts, as poet and critic, seem to be to anything that smacks of boldness, change or controversy of any kind whatsoever. His will be the tired, old, masculine voice of that somnolent Oxbridge England (University College, Oxford, in Motion’s case), which New Labour once led us to believe was a thing of the past. Now it is to be the voice of the new millennium.

Nasty old Burroughs may have been right after all about that stink which surrounds the laureateship.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)