Fightin' words

The British are talking trash and taking bets in the tussle over the U.K.'s next poet laureate.

Published April 20, 1999 5:42PM (EDT)

The English are debating an issue that touches on tradition, the royal family, gay rights, left-wing politics, government subsidies for the arts, professional gambling, women's equality, race and the importance of saying, "Up yours!" to Tony Blair. They're arguing about who will be their next poet laureate.

The post, which is a lifetime position and chosen by the prime minister with the queen's affirmation, became vacant with the death of Ted Hughes last November. The matter of who'll take over Hughes' duties has received a degree of media play that would astonish readers in America, where the annual announcement of the U.S. poet laureate barely rates an item in major newspapers -- even during National Poetry Month. (FYI: It's Robert Pinsky, for the third time in as many years.) In England, however, the candidates' poems are printed -- and their chances debated -- in the national news sections of the broadsheets. The press is also discussing the advisability of changing the term to five or 10 years, upping the salary and even adding a proper job description to what has thus far been a lifelong sinecure as a member of the royal household. The identity of the next laureate is such a big deal that even bookmaker William Hill, who runs a nationwide chain of betting parlors, is getting in on the act by posting odds.

Part of the hype and anticipation around the laureate is a result of poetry's new hipness in British society. There are poets-in-residence for Marks & Spencer (a British department store chain), Parliament and the London Zoo -- and now, a producer of "Elizabeth" is making "Ted and Sylvia." Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, the film will be based on the tragic relationship between Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and is being tentatively billed as "the greatest love story of the century." Indeed.

Andrew Motion, Carol Anne Duffy, Tony Harrison, Wendy Cope and Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott (who doesn't even live in Great Britain) have all been named in the media and through the poetry grapevine as possible successors to Hughes, but an official list of finalists has not been disclosed. The delay has encouraged the poets and the press to play out the battle in public. Walcott threw his hat into the ring in the Observer, and Motion's elegiac ode to Hughes in the Times was widely seen as an application for the post. Meanwhile, Tony Harrison roundly declined the job -- in verse -- in the Guardian, and sent a copy of his poem to Blair and the queen. Titled "Laureate's Block, for Queen Elizabeth, " it begins:

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.

By Jennifer Kabat

MORE FROM Jennifer Kabat

Related Topics ------------------------------------------