A look at the role of the Poet Laureate from Marxism Today, 4 July, 1984. Michelene Warner was writing shortly after the death of encumbant Sir John Betjeman, she’s a bit off as to her tips as Ted Hughes, who she described as being ‘deeply murky’ and ‘too steamy for the royal guardian of Parnassus’ got the job. She also thinks that ‘no woman has ever held the post, nor indeed will’ whilst things have moved on and we have Carol Anne Duffy as Laureate at present, and one who’s making good use of the position.
LAURELS AND HARDY POETS
Sir John Betjeman, Poet Laureate since 1972, died on May 19,1984. The newspapers and other media have been full of tributes to his popularity as a poet, a mild man, living simply in Cornwall, keen on lawns and cricket and the calm values of suburbia in his poetry. A man, also, who took an active role in the preservation of Victorian and other buildings of genuine architectural interest. An Anglican, Godfearing, and presumably sufficiently monarch-loving man. The tributes skate lightly over the sub-doggerel he produced in the line of royal duty; and they also don’t bother to mention the convention of the British gentleman’s sexist leering at women which were so integral to his Sunday afternoon poetry. It is absolutely true that he caught at a very powerful part of the middle-brow British imagination, and his popularity in sales terms (a quarter of a million books even before the Royal appointment) testifies to the mass of that imagination.
The many tributes that have appeared, and no doubt will continue to appear, show just respect to one of the Grand Old Men of British poetry, for of course male is exactly what they are. Despite the fact that the names of Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were whispered around the nineteenth century as possibles for the Laureateship, no woman has ever held the post, nor indeed will. And anyway, if it is really the anachronism it appears to be, with no real state function in its own right, and certainly with no significant relationship to the rest of poetry scene, whether a man or a woman holds the post is entirely irrelevant.
The only minimal virtue the post has is the media attention it draws upon the two occasions of the appointing and the death of the Laureate. At those times a scattering of other establishment poetic names hit the press, a few more books by the already successful poets are sold, the bookmakers get their books out, bets are laid, words are exchanged between Buck House and the Arts Council, and there is a new appointee.
The current favourite is Philip Larkin, and by all that’s logical he should get it. Despite his more bleak outlook — he lacks the jolly hockey-sticks legacy of Betjeman’s upper-middle-class background — he carries the flag of lace-curtain suburbia high, along with a suitably repressed British sexuality. Others — such as the deeply murky Ted Hughes, and the barrack-room ribaldry of civvie street Gavin Ewart — are altogether a bit too steamy for the royal guardian of Parnassus.
Candidates who have not even appeared on the list of possibles are worth mentioning only to indicate where the taboos fall. If, for example, we wanted an articulate, moving and also sardonic satirist, it is Roger Woddis we should be after; but he is altogether too (sshh) political (I mean left-wing) to be acceptable. Linton Kwesi Johnson and John Cooper Clarke, the two giants who have emerged through the 1970s as rhythmic and socially critical wordsmiths, both brilliant performers, both showing a streetwise verbal richness in their different ways that is highly original — well, too crude, too rude, too clever. In the very olden days satirists and political
commentators were acceptable to a degree: Ben Jonson, though not strictly speaking Poet Laureate, was certainly paid to write masques, and the first official Poet Laureate was John Dryden.
Any genuine political poetry was made tacitly impossible by the Poet Laureate who has the worst reputation: the nineteenth-century Alfred Austin, whose first public act of loyalty was to write the most appalling clip-clop doggerel in praise of the abortive raid in the Transvaal, led by Dr Jameson against the Boers. Austin’s crime was not the badness of the poem, but the fact that he expressed what was probably the real jingoism of the government of the day, who were acutely embarrassed by the Raid — not by the fact that it had happened, but by the fact that it had failed. Queen and government were right behind Cecil Rhodes and his expansion in Africa, and it was the humiliating failure that made Austin’s jingoism so embarrassing.
More important than the Laureateship itself is the state today of the art of which he (sic) is thought to be the head. Despite the recent small rumble of cabaret poetry, Betjeman’s period has been marked by an actual decline in resources for poetry. In the late 60s and early 70s there were many small poetry presses, and a great variety of material being published. Through a mixture of exhaustion, increased costs and withdrawal of subsidy, many of these have disappeared. Magazines which used to appear regularly now only appear very occasionally. The establishment of poets in residence is under threat because of the cuts. The major publishing houses cut back on poetry publishing in the mid-late 70s, and have a long way to go before they can return to some of the variety of a decade ago. The result is that the poetry ‘establishment’ is again — as it was in the mid-60s — in the hands of a small number of literary gentlemen, most of whom fetishise lack of feeling and lack of commitment to anything more than small and cautionary experience.
It is not just a matter of more money for poetry — though that would always be nice. It is also something to do with the way poetry is simultaneously revered as the highest of the arts, and treated as its Cinderella, by the literary establishment. In left-wing journalism poetry is feared or dismissed as bourgeois individualism and
discounted by radical publishers as ‘not selling’; and meanwhile all good radicals and true scribble away their closet poetry — or their closet novels.
The extraordinary thing is that poets keep emerging and poetry continues to be written. The fact that it will never die as a literary form which speaks from and to the most intimate of personal/political feeling, and the fact that it is through poetry that the meanings in language and imagery are flexed and tested, should not mean that we should not be concerned about the material ways in which poetry is distributed and encouraged. And the dazzle of the Laureate’s crown will not make any difference at all to this.