Wanted: one royal versifier – an interest in trees and homeopathy an advantage | Catherine Bennett

With Carol Ann Duffy bowing out as poet laureate, others are courting the honour

Since he does not read newspapers or subscribe to news outlets, maybe someone could tell Jeremy Wright, the minister responsible for the media and culture, that unofficial applications for the position of poet laureate are already coming in?

With Carol Ann Duffy due, next spring, to complete 10 impressive years as laureate, another accomplished poet, Simon Armitage, Oxford professor of poetry, has ventured to write a full job description and list of relevant qualifications, with which, it emerges, he is supremely well endowed. Others, maybe, not so much.

“If you haven’t read the whole of Beowulf or The Iliad, or don’t know who wrote Lycidas, or can’t recite a poem by Sappho or Emily Dickinson, or can’t name a poem by Derek Walcott, then,” writes Armitage, subtly narrowing the field, “you are not worthy of the role.”

That Armitage does not clarify whether he read Beowulf in the original is underlined in a response from another versatile poet, Fiona Pitt-Kethley, setting out her own “suitability for the job” in the London Review of Books. “Yes I have read both,” she writes. “Beowulf in the original, one book of The Iliad in the original and the whole in several different translations. I prefer The Iliad.”

Anticipating one possible objection from the formidable panel now tasked with advising the Queen on Duffy’s replacement, Pitt-Kethley asks if it matters that she lives in Spain. “I could still get to London quicker on a cheap flight than many poets living in distant parts of the United Kingdom.” Given the panel’s likely political sympathies, this might even be an advantage. Duffy, after all, recently enlarged on the “evil twins of Trump and Brexit”.

Since this laureate selection is the first to occur in the wreckage left by David Cameron, the panel may feel, however, that there’s a current case for an above all apolitical laureate – assuming abolition’s out of the question – or certainly someone less easy to accuse, as Duffy has been, of metropolitan liberal elite partisanship. Because of not reading newspapers, a non-habit he disclosed last week, to an audience of editors, the culture secretary will have missed the indignation, in below-the-line comments, in response to Duffy’s use of “evil”. “I pay tax,” writes one contributor, “I fund the arts as much as any remainer. We 17.4 million have a right to have our voice included in the arts scene of the UK.”

Simon Armitage: has thrown his hat in the poetic ring.
Simon Armitage: has thrown his hat in the poetic ring. Photograph: Paul Wolfgang Webster 2014

Again, due to his aversion to news products, the media minister, as supervisor of the shortlist, may also be unaware that a talked-up contender, Benjamin Zephaniah, has already upheld the tradition – almost as established as the laureateship itself – that the people who would be most interesting in the job are those most likely to refuse to do it. Following in the footsteps of Larkin and Gray, Heaney, Harrison and Cope, he tweeted: “I have absolutely no interest in this job. I won’t work for them. They oppress me, they upset me, and they are not worthy.”

The “them”, presumably, being the royals, for whose glorification the laureateship was invented and who continue to accept tributes – “ridiculous and sickening effusions”, as they were described by Alexander Andrews, in an 1844 anthology. Both Duffy, before she was appointed (she’s recently said she didn’t say it, but it was reported everywhere without correction), and Armitage, when her rival, noted the absurdity of a decent poet being “shackled” (Armitage’s word) to royal ode writing, though if there’s something unpersuasive about their decisions to endure it for poetry, fellow compromisers have testified to the creative karma. “Oh God, the Royal poem!!” John Betjeman wailed. “Send the H[oly] G[host] to help me over that fence.” For Prince Charles’s first wedding, he was reduced to: “Blackbirds in City churchyards hail the dawn,/ Charles and Diana, on your wedding morn.”

As for Duffy, although she balked at George’s christening, she was willing, with Rings and Long Walk, to deliver for significant weddings: “Then one blessed step/ and the long walk ended/ where love had always been aimed.” Aimed? Recovering from his eight-poem stint, Andrew Motion alerted possible successors to the hilarity, sometimes masquerading as scholarly concern, which awaits their contributions, even those that, as with many of Duffy’s, will end up being studied in schools. Her new sonnet, The Wound in Time, bleakly commemorating the armistice, is already available for this purpose.

It can’t have escaped contenders, or Prince Charles, that one special demand on Duffy’s successor will be the requirement for an elegy to accompany at least one state funeral and probably under similar pressure to express the Nation’s Sorrow as evidently afflicted Nahum Tate, a predecessor “rat-catcher to his majesty”, as Gray called laureates. “How shall we Write, or how shall it be Read,/ The King, the King, Our Royal Master’s Dead!” In fact, Charles’s enthusiasm for verse, audible in various recitations, suggests that laureate selection is a task he might well share with the Queen, with potentially discouraging consequences for some candidates. Given his sensitivity to criticism, and the well-documented sycophancy of his court, a readiness to serve as a fellow mystic and royalty accomplice, like Ted Hughes (reader of bedtime stories to the prince’s sons) could turn out, this round, to be more critical than the recitation of Sappho on demand.

It might not be a bad idea, anyway, in anticipation of the routine Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport trawl through social media (for avoidance of a rhyming Scruton or Young) for interested subjects to erase any earlier reservations about Charles’s achievements, ditto hostility to homoeopathy and royal train-related disloyalty. On the bright side, they have until May to find inspiration in plant life. Her rivals will be aware that Alice Oswald won the inaugural Ted Hughes award for her 2009 collection, Weeds and Wild Flowers.

• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist


Catherine Bennett

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