To Be or Not to Be Laureate—that Is the Question for Britain's Leading Bards

On the 80th birthday of Britain’s Queen Mother, poet laureate Sir John Betjeman composed the following forgettable quatrain in her honor: We are your people/Millions of us greet you/On this your birthday/Mother of our Queen. As the London Times observed last month, when the otherwise respected man of letters passed away, “His explicitly laureate verse was undeniably weak.”

Many members of Britain’s literary establishment think the post of laureate tends to breed such greeting-card goo and would not be sorry to see the appointment abolished. The sentiment is particularly strong among leading bards, who are afraid they might be asked to take Betjeman’s place.

The new recipient of the 300-year-old honor will be named this year by Queen Elizabeth, after consulting with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who is polling Britain’s Poetry Society, the Arts Council and leading academics. The laureate’s salary will be anything but grand: about $135 a year plus $37 in lieu of the traditional “butt of sack,” i.e., 126 gallons of sherry. The payoff has not improved since Alfred, Lord Tennyson held the post 134 years ago, but laureates no longer must pen odes to royal occasions.

The first laureate and writer of royal couplets was John Dryden, appointed by Charles II in 1668. Among the more reluctant early winners was William Wordsworth. He served from 1843 to 1850 without writing a single official line. But the office revived handsomely under Tennyson, who as laureate turned out some of his greatest work.

Then the post plunged into disrepute. The notoriously untalented Alfred Austin dished up this 19th-century ditty on the illness of the Prince of Wales: “Across the wires the electric message came: He is no better. He is much the same.” In 1913 Robert Bridges restored distinction to the appointment, and since then only serious poets, including John Masefield and Betjeman, have been laureates.

The question poets are asking is: Will it continue that way? Oxford professor John Jones says the appointee should be the sort to whom the “Princess of Wales will give…a job of work to do when she has her next baby.” That job description sounds like the old royal-odes game.

The wary front-runners are Philip Larkin, 61, Gavin Ewart, 68, D.J. Enright, 64, Roy Fuller, 72, and Ted Hughes, 53. Larkin, for one, has said that the prospect of being chosen makes him “wake up screaming.” But his credentials may earn him the horror of appointment anyway.

Larkin won the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1965. And a book of 1983 essays, Required Writing, earned the notable W.H. Smith award. A Conservative, he supports Thatcher, which might weigh in his favor. “Of course,” he says of any politicizing of the laureateship, “the days when Tennyson would publish a sonnet telling Gladstone what to do about foreign policy are over. But,” he adds uneasily, “the publicity is so fierce, it must be more of an ordeal than an honor.”

Fuller, who took a Gold Medal in 1970, has written poetry on the side while serving as a lawyer, real-estate executive, governor of the BBC and Professor of Poetry at Oxford. He agrees that the post of laureate has “become a media thing. One gets inundated by letters from lunatics and by poetic epics from young beginners.”

Gavin Ewart, with dozens of published titles ranging from The Deceptive Grin of the Gravel Porters to Or Where a Young Penguin Lies Screaming, thinks the laureateship is “a perfect way to stop a poet writing poetry. If I were asked, I’d have to think very hard about it.”

“I don’t think it’s proper to say no if it’s offered,” says D.J. Enright, Gold Medal winner in 1981. However, he has some iconoclastic notions about the office. “I think of a poet as being adversarial, against things rather than for them. Perhaps the laureate should be a black Welsh lesbian—one-legged.”

Ted Hughes, a man with tragedy in his background, appears as the dark horse. His American poet-novelist wife, Sylvia (The Bell Jar) Plath, killed herself in 1963. The Economist magazine says of the prolific Hughes, “By taking…events with an everyday quality, he gives an impression of accessibility. Intensely rooted in the natural world of England, he could develop into a popular and respected laureate.”

Some laureate watchers have suggested that when the PM and the Queen get together, they choose a woman. That would have pleased Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures, who wrote to a friend what his advice would have been to Queen Victoria. “I would say, ‘For once, Madam, take a laady!’ But they never consult the right people.”

Past laureates have been great and ghastly

Britain’s first laureate, John Dryden, was sacked from his job in 1689 after King James I lost his throne, but continued as a prolific writer.

Alfred Austin, who got the post as a political favor, helped give royal verse a bad name.

Only one poem appeared under William Wordsworth’s name when he was laureate; he got his son-in-law to write it.

John Masefield celebrated World War! and II battles. He modestly submitted his laureate poems with stamped, self-addressed envelopes.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, laureate from 1850 to 1892, was unable to afford court dress. He borrowed Wordsworth’s suit.

“I don’t think I am any good,” Sir John Betjeman once said of his talent. “If I thought I was any good, I wouldn’t be.”

Some states are not ad-verse to poets laureate

There is sometimes rhyme but rarely reason in the choice of poets laureate in America. The U.S. has no national poet laureate, but any state may choose one for itself. Half the states don’t bother. Kentucky, on the other hand, at last count boasted six. Few state laureates have official duties, which is fortunate, since several are dead.

Among literati, most of these poets designate are written off as regional rhymesters, about as prestigious as state birds. One such rhymester is Tennessee’s Richard “Pek” Gunn, the son of an illiterate sharecropper. A typical Gunn shot goes like this: “I am tired of meeting deadlines/Reaching quotas week by week/So I’m heading for the Smokies/And the bank of Tumblin’ Creek.” Gunn ignores detractors—at least people understand his verse, he says.

It would take a bold critic, however, to carp at Illinois’ original choice of poet laureate, Carl Sandburg, and perhaps an even bolder one to niggle at the man who, although he died in 1963, still holds the post in Vermont. Robert Frost was not only proud of being Vermont’s laureate, he wrote a poem to his own appointment that indicated a kind of country-boy kinship with “Pek” Gunn: “Breathes there a bard who isn’t moved/When he finds his-verse is understood/And not entirely disapproved/By his country and his neighborhood.”

Some other states, too, have made special contributions to the nation’s poetic heritage, including New Hampshire, which anointed laureate Donald Hall this month. The following is a sampling of Hall and of other laureates who have done their states proud.

Donald Hall, New Hampshire

Donald Hall, 55, grew up loving poetry and remembers that “I wanted to be like Edgar Allan Poe…profoundly melancholy, profoundly attractive.” He takes special pleasure from giving poetry readings “in which the sound itself keeps the listeners intent.” Formerly a professor in Michigan, he now lives on the Danbury, N.H. farm that his family has owned for more than a century, evoking images like Old Roses.

White roses, tiny and old, hover among thorns

by the barn door. For a hundred years

under the June elm, under the gaze of seven generations, they floated briefly, like this, in the moment of roses.

Lucille Clifton, Maryland

Despite once having had four children in diapers at the same time (and six kids altogether), Lucille Clifton, 48, has managed to write five books of poetry that she believes—rightly—”bring distinction to my state.” She has read her work at the White House and received two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. She also has written 19 children’s books, including The Black BC’s. (Sample: “G is for ghetto/a place where we/can be at home/loved and free.”) Her work “celebrates life,” she says, through humor, black pride and poems like homage to my hips.

these hips are big hips.

they need space to

move around in. they don’t fit into little

petty places, these hips are free hips.

they don’t like to be held back.

these hips have never been enslaved….

Gwendolyn Brooks, Illinois

Following in the grand tradition of Carl Sandburg, Gwendolyn Brooks, 67, has won a Pulitzer Prize, tow Guggenheims and 40 honorary degrees. Like any good Sandburg successor, she dutifully writes of the hometown, Chicago: “…City of clangor. City of lunge and langour. City of maul and mercy, city of the out-stuck tongue…” Widely recognized for her commitment to black identity, she writes eloquently about the ghetto and contributes her own money for scholarships for young black writers and poetry prizes for youngsters of all races. In her own we Real Cool, she catches the frustration of the restless young.

We real cool. We

Left school. We

Lurk late. We

Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We

Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We

Die soon.

William Stafford, Oregon

A retired university professor now living in Lake Oswego, William Stafford, 70, has been poetry consultant to the Library of Congress and was once described as “a sort of Western Robert Frost.” Some of his verse, such as Love in the Country (below), is close in spirit to Japanese haiku, reflecting his gentle, deeply personal feeling for the lands and creatures of the wide-open spaces. Poetry, he believes, is “part of the civilizing of America…we get in touch with parts of our lives we’ve ignored in our woodchopping, mountain-leveling times.”

We live like this: not one but

some of the owls awake, and of them

only near ones really awake.

In the rain yesterday, puddles

on the walk to the barn sounded their

quick little drinks.

The edge of the haymow, all

soaked in moonlight,

dreams out there like silver music….

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