I’m appalled to see newspapers use my name
as “widely tipped” for a job I’d never seek …
I’d sooner be a free man … free not to have to puff some prince’s wedding,
free to say up yours to Tony Blair,
to write an ode on Charles I’s beheading
and regret the restoration of his heir.
But what, exactly, are the duties of the poet laureate? The poetry crowd — those in the know at the Poetry Society, the Royal Society of Literature, the Society of Authors, the Arts Council and the British Council, among others — are quick to defend the position’s open-endedness, saying, “You can make the job your own.” That may sound like a phrase plucked from a job interview for a marketing executive, but is the poet laureate much different? Essentially, the laureate’s responsibility is to memorialize the royal family. This unpromising mandate has led to such verse as Lawrence Eusden’s tepid tribute to George II: “Thy virtues shine particularly nice/Ungloomed with a confinity to vice.” It also drove laureate Alfred Austin to pen this immortal bit of doggerel about the health status of a sick prince: “Across the wires the electric message came:/He is not much better: he is much the same.”
In exchange for shouldering this burden, the laureate receives the far-from-princely sum of 70 pounds (although a pay raise is being considered) and a case of wine per year. Reportedly, one of Hughes’ favorite parts of the job was picking his wine.
Because laureateships don’t come up on the block that frequently, there’s also no clear structure in place for picking the poet. For Prime Minister Tony Blair, the appointment offers a chance to demonstrate his cultural capital. At a time when pop stars have been photographed visiting 10 Downing Street, “Blair’s taken a fair bit of flak,” says Gary McKeone, head of the literature department at the Arts Council. Choosing the poet laureate “can give the administration a certain amount of gravitas with the arts community,” he explains. To ensure this happens, Blair has appointed a bureaucrat, John Hepworth Holroyd, to head up the search.
Holroyd has been soliciting recommendations from all the expected arts organizations as well as the public. Even the BBC’s venerable Radio 4 has conducted a listener poll. But despite all the recommendations — or perhaps because of them — the process is taking an unexpectedly long time: six months. People have been anticipating a decision since February, then on March 14, Radio 4 announced the appointment was expected the following week. Still no laureate. Downing Street’s spokeswoman, Lucy McNeil, explains that with the bombings in Serbia, “It’s on the back of the pile for a while.” McNeil notes that it was six months after Sir John Betjeman died before Hughes was installed, but that time around, the post was offered initially to Philip Larkin, who turned it down.
Michael Holroyd (no relation to John Hepworth Holroyd), the head of the Royal Society of Literature, insists that a decision is “imminent.” He also thinks the nature of the post shouldn’t be changed yet, not until all concerns are taken under advisement by a committee of poetry authorities. “If I were in Tony Blair’s place,” Michael Holroyd confides, “I’d say … let us pick someone who is a very senior, well-loved poet and on people’s lists, which will be a perfectly good choice but perhaps because of the age involved not a choice that is going to go on for a very long time. And then immediately after that, set up a committee.” Michael Holroyd’s list for the job even includes one elderly poet who could fit that bill — though he declines to say who that is.
Gary McKeone, meanwhile, is tipping Andrew Motion and Carol Ann Duffy, although the Guardian has insinuated that the holdup is due to Duffy’s sexual orientation. Motion, a biographer, was a friend of Hughes and teaches creative writing at the University of East Anglia — all very respectable, even if his verse is a bit dull. Duffy is both popular and populist, a regular on the reading circuit and on academic syllabuses; if appointed, she would be Britain’s first female poet laureate. (Walcott, if chosen, would be its first black laureate.) Bookie William Hill says his front-runner is Wendy Cope, who writes light verse, but McKeone compares Cope to a racehorse that “comes out of the gates fairly swiftly and then fades,” saying that if people bet on the posted favorite, “William Hill is going to be making a lot of money.”
In any case, the bookie stopped taking bets on the laureate in February. Graham Sharpe, spokesman for Hill, explains, “It would be financially dangerous for us to continue to bet. We understand it’s reached the stage when there are only two or three people being considered for the position, but nobody’s put out an official short list. There are people who know rather more about it than we do at the moment.” At the moment, the chain’s got Duffy coming in second, Ursula Fanthorpe and Walcott tied for third and Motion and James Fenton (who’s also now declined the post) tied for fourth. Maybe we’ll know by the time “Ted and Sylvia” gets released.