Will anyone bet on me?
Fiona Pitt-Kethley for Poet Laureate
The search to find the new poet laureate for when Carol Ann Duffy stands down next year is hotting up. In the past some poets have been reluctant to assume the role. Everything from mock modesty to anti-monarchic feeling has been used as a reason to say no.
The job used to be for life but is now limited to ten years. The royal poems of the last two laureates may not have been their greatest work, but they did some good other things. Andrew Motion was involved in starting the Poetry Archive with its recordings of poets reading their work. I applaud this even though they haven’t included me yet. And Duffy gave up her laureate’s salary to fund the Ted Hughes Award.
Simon Armitage, who sounds as if he wants the job, to judge by a recent piece in the Guardian, decreed among other things that a poet laureate should have read Beowulf and the Iliad. Yes, I have read both. Beowulf in the original, one book of the Iliad in the original and the whole in several different translations. I prefer the Iliad. From my part-Welsh point of view Beowulf is not as good as the old Welsh epics, and has a much smaller vocabulary.
I would like to advance some arguments for my own suitability for the job. A great many of my early poems related to history, though I am not known in general for this part of my output. This work is now available as part of my Collected Poems and in Kindle and short paperback versions. It isn’t the poetry most people know me by, but it has its own merit which is why I kept it. How many of the other possible candidates have anything similar in their repertoire?
I have written a great many light verse poems and turned out many winning entries for Spectator competitions: heroic couplets, sonnets etc. It might be a good idea to treat royal events in this style as older laureates did. The moderner laureates didn’t take this option but perhaps should have done.
I was still living in England when Motion got the job. I am now in Spain. But should that really be an objection? I could still get to London quicker on a cheap flight than many poets living in distant parts of the United Kingdom. Perfectly possible to go over for a few readings a month. The rest could be done by email.
Twenty years ago, I was asked to contribute a poem on the laureateship and why I would like it. I concentrated on the well-known alcoholic perk and called it ‘I Could Use a Butt of Canary’. It was published in the Observer, I think. I was not thought a possible candidate by the media back then, or indeed now.
What exactly goes into the choosing of a laureate? Duffy was probably chosen in part because it was felt there should be a woman in the role, sooner or later. Women are, after all, roughly half the population. Perhaps there will be a decision to opt for a BAME writer this time round. Whoever it is, it is likely that some measure of political correctness will enter into the choice made.
The modern world requires different tasks from its laureates and is rather embarrassed by the royal poem bit. If I were lucky enough to get the job, what would my contribution be? I am in no financial position to give up the salary as Duffy did, but I would be keen to do something for poetry and poets in general. My professional writing started c. 1978 although I was not really known till the mid-1980s. Since then, I have seen the poetry world decline in many ways and that is sad. Several good and influential poetry lists have died in the last three decades. That of Oxford University Press, for instance. If I were in a position of power I would like to start talking to the bigger publishers and suggest it was time to start new ones. They would probably say that poetry doesn’t sell. I would point out that it could if they promoted it properly. I sold well back at the time Sky Ray Lolly was published. It is time for some new lists, not the old closed ones, and lots of promotion to bring poetry back into the news. It could be done, but it would take faith and money.
Will I make the short list? Will I be a 100 to 1 dark horse in the race? Will anyone bet on me? Time will tell.