A new poet laureate is waiting in the wings
As Carol Ann Duffy’s term as poet laureate comes to an end, we look back at 350 years of laureates - including the one that got sacked.
Every monarch needs a poet...
At least, that is what, one imagines, underpins the tradition of having a poet laureate. At the end of April 2019, we are due for a new one as the current incumbent - and first woman to hold the honour - Carol Ann Duffy’s term comes to an end.
Maybe the best-known poet, Benjamin Zephaniah ruled himself out: “I have absolutely no interest in this job.” Those tipped to be in the running include Lemn Sissay, Imtiaz Dharker, Wendy Cope, Jackie Kay, Simon Armitage, Daljit Nagra and Vahni Capildeo.
What do they have to do, these poets laureate? There is, actually, no prescribed list of events that require a poem but it is expected that the poet will pen some lines on momentous royal occasions such as jubilees, weddings and funerals. Some poets might find that a daunting prospect while others may embrace the chance to have one poem circle the world.
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At this stage we do not know the name of the next poet laureate although, we are told, a list from which Ms Duffy’s successor will be chosen, has been submitted to Buckingham Palace by Downing Street. As far as I know, there is no overt competition for the role. I cannot imagine the Queen is being inundated with verses from wannabe poets laureate... although a sum of money (£5,750 pa) accompanies the position.
Even if there were submissions I think we can assume that anyone submitting a limerick that starts: “There once was a monarch called Liz,” would not get through the first round.
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Although kings and queens had their court poets and musicians it was not until 1668 that the royal office of poet laureate within the royal household was created by Charles II. A Catholic, Dryden was sacked in 1689 when the Protestant monarchs William and Mary acceded to the throne. He remains the only holder of the post to have been dismissed.
His successor Thomas Shadwell was appointed for life and he was given the specific duties of producing poems for the new year and for the monarch’s birthday but the requirement ceased when William Wordsworth was appointed in the 19th century and this fairly relaxed approach to poem production has prevailed ever since.
There have been 20 laureates to date, the longest serving being Alfred Lord Tennyson at 42 years (1850-1892) and the shortest term being that of Nicholas Rowe at three years and four months (1715-1718). Today, the laureate serves a fixed 10 year term.
Altogether, six poets are known to have turned down the chance to be poet laureate, the most recent to have refused the position being Philip Larkin in 1984. Instead it went to Ted Hughes.
There are a handful of East Anglian links with the laureates. Thomas Shadwell, mentioned above, was born in Norfolk and went to school in Bury St Edmunds. He was poet laureate for just three years and eight months, until his death in 1692. Probably his most famous poem is Nymphs and Shepherds (come away) which was set to music by Henry Purcell.
His predecessor, John Dryden, termed Shadwell: “A foul mass of corrupted matter”. Clearly, Dryden wasn’t at all bitter about being sacked.
A baker’s son, William Whitehead (laureate 1757-1785), was born in Cambridge and took up the post when Thomas Gray refused it.
Sir Andrew Motion (laureate 1999-2009) was born in London but the family moved to Stisted, near Braintree in Essex, when Motion was 12 years old. Motion succeeded Malcolm Bradbury as Professor of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.
The late Sir John Betjeman wrote of a Suffolk seaside town:
With one consuming roar along the shingle
The long wave claws and rakes the pebbles down
To where its backwash and the next wave mingle,
A mounting arch of water weedy-brown
Against the tide the off-shore breezes blow.
Oh wind and water, this is Felixstowe.
In his book Best British Churches, Betjeman wrote about many East Anglian churches including Blythburgh. His love of churches, it is said, began in Norfolk when he saw St. Peter’s Church at Belaugh from his father’s boat on the River Bure.
Who will be the new poet laureate, succeeding the first woman to take the laurels? Another woman, maybe?
What we do know is that a group of experts - drawn from UK literary festivals, libraries and poetry organisations, has cut back a long list of poets to just four or five.
The final decision will be made by the Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright who, according to his Wikipedia entry likes to unwind by spending time with his “very large” Lego collection. Incredibly, there are quite a number of poems about Lego...