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This item is taken from PN Review 267, Volume 49 Number 1, September - October 2022.

The Queen among Poets

In 1987 a group of Commonwealth writers met the Queen at the Commonwealth Institute in London to present her with an anthology. Carcanet had published Under Another Sky: The Commonwealth Poetry Prize Anthology which Alastair Niven edited. The prize had reached its fifteenth year, an occasion for celebration.

Niven took his title from Rajagopal Parthasarathy’s poem ‘Exile 2’, commended in 1977:
He had spent his youth whoring
after English gods.
There is something to be said for exile:
you learn roots are deep.
That language is a tree, loses colour
under another sky

The prize, established in 1972, by 1987 was patronised by British Airways. They came on board, as it were, in 1985 when the rules were made more inclusive. Before, only poets writing in English from countries other than Great Britain could submit work. In 1985 poets from the British Isles, a growing number of them with roots in the Commonwealth and some of them not writing in English, were permitted to send in work. Niven’s anthology includes winning and commended poems from each year of the Prize.

The first winner was Chinua Achebe, who attended the event at the Institute. Because the judges were in disagreement, that first award was shared with the Canadian George McWhirter. On only one other occasion did disagreement yield a split prize. Subsequent winners were Wayne Brown from Trinidad, Dennis Scott from Jamaica, and a distinguished list of men (David Dabydeen, Vikram Seth twice, Michael Longley, Niyi Osundare and Iain Crichton Smith among them). In 1980 Shirley Lim, the first woman and the first Malaysian, was chosen, and soon the glass ceiling was further breached by Grace Nichols, Lauris Edmond, Vicki Raymond and Lorna Goodison. Grace Nichols contributed an ‘Epilogue’ to our book:
I have crossed an ocean
I have lost my tongue
from the root of the old one
a new one has sprung

The Queen moved among a great press of poets drawn from all over the world, exchanging words and smiles. She had a proper conversation with Chinua Achebe who stood to my right. As publisher, it fell to me to present her with a copy of the book. I told her that I might be the only Mexican publisher in her dominions. ‘Mexican?’ she smiled, ‘you don’t look Mexican.’

I write this as we await news from Balmoral. I was remembering another occasion to which I cannot put a date. Carol Ann Duffy as poet laureate had prevailed upon her Majesty to invite a gaggle, ascension, ambush, aurora, assembly – what is the collective noun, or is this a gap in our language? – of poets to Buckingham Palace for drinks and canapes. The palace had put on display a number of the poetic treasures from the royal archive. The one I best remember is the copy of George Herbert’s The Temple which Charles I was reading the night before his execution. Again her Majesty, now a good deal older, moved among the poets. A few of us hoary male writers were gathered to hold a conversation with her, which we did. Then, as I walked around enjoying the opulence, a voice hissed, ‘Schmidt!’ It was Geoffrey Hill, sitting apart. He had had enough. ‘Get me out of here,’ he said, and that’s what I did. I took his elbow and led him down to the street. And afterwards, I couldn’t get back in.

This item is taken from PN Review 267, Volume 49 Number 1, September - October 2022.

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