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PN Review 276
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This item is taken from PN Review 127, Volume 25 Number 5, May - June 1999.

As PN Review 127 goes to press the buzz is that a new Poet Laureate, and perhaps a new shape for the Laureateship, will be announced in the next week or two. More speculation and mild controversy have surrounded this succession than any since, perhaps, Wordsworth's death when Mrs Elizabeth Barrett Browning was rumoured to be in the running as his successor. In the end the job went to her admirer Tennyson.

For a long time now PN Review has lamented the poverty of our 'culture of reception' for new poetry. The sluggishness or more often the absence of review coverage of new titles is in part a result of the dramatic production - or overproduction - of poetry books, which has increased more than five-fold in the last twenty years. It is also a function of the marketing and cheerleader approach to the art. The media are looking for performers, for personalities. Books whose authors do not attract feature coverage or cannot sing and dance are likely to sell very slowly.

Critical severity and clear discrimination were to be found in Britain in the late 1960s and early 1970s in The Times, the Guardian, the Listener, New Statesman, Spectator, Tablet; the Telegraph too had regular poetry reviews, and the Sunday papers were not far behind. There were known reviewers whose tastes and prejudices a reader could make allowance for. A first book was almost always reviewed, quite promptly, certainly in the Guardian, often elsewhere. Martin Dodsworth, Donald Davie, Robert Nye, Peter Porter, Elizabeth Jennings, were among the discriminating sign posters. On occasion the monstrous voice of Geoffrey Grigson sounded from a swamp, and while the Review functioned (Thumbscrew may yet prove its successor) one could be sure of some critical or polemical violence.

Pound was wrong: the literature that stays news isn't poetry but what in the 1970s we learned to call 'the poetry scene'. When Oxford University Press decided to discontinue its contemporary poetry list last autumn, acres of newsprint were dedicated to 'the issues' raised by their decision. Had one tenth of that space been devoted to reviewing the books they produced, Oxford might not have reached the decision it did.

And the Laureateship: speculation began with indecent speed after Ted Hughes died, as when the Pope passes on and Peter's keys dangle lonesomely from an empty cassock. I wonder whether U.A. Fanthorpe has received as much attention for her books as she did when her name was mooted in connection with the Laureateship? Other candidates, too... Would the Guardian have published Tony Harrison's doggerel without the pretext of the Laureateship, its occasion but hardly a justification?

The last time round most people assumed that Philip Larkin would become Laureate. He assured us categorically that he was not in the frame. But if he were, he said, he would do what Kingsley Amis did. When some unknown writer sent him poems to read without a self-addressed envelope, he binned them. When a self-addressed envelope was included, he scrawled on the poems, 'F--k off,' and sent them back. Aversion therapy in an age of mandatory goodwill towards everyone who thinks they can write. Sir John Betjeman's approach was more generous than Amis's. He would write a note by hand, with a broad-nibbed fountain pen, in his frayed copperplate, assuring the aspiring poet that he had real talent and should consider sending his poems to Carcanet. Ted Hughes is said to have received huge bags of post. The Laureate is a legitimiser, a Seal of Good Housekeeping. His - or her? - endorsement is like a little royal honour. Hughes's responses were more selective than Betjeman's, less dismissive than Amis's. If the Laureateship is changed, or has been changed, this element at least is likely to remain fixed.

Where did the Laureateship begin? A couple of centuries earlier than is usually reported. After writing extensively in the language of the court (French), and of the church (Latin), John Gower turned to English because he ran into Richard II, the boy king nearing his majority, on the Thames. The king invited him aboard his barge and asked him to write 'some newe thing'. Despite ill-health, the poet promised to oblige 'for king Richardes sake', to provide 'wisdome to the wise/And pley to hem that lust to pleye'. Gower cast aside the sanctioned instruments of his trade, the languages of secular and spiritual power, and took up the mess that was English, breathing coherent life into it. He wrote his Confessio Amantis for Richard; when Richard proved unworthy, he made it over, adding an allegorical record of royal errors. The third version of 1393 is dedicated to the future king, Henry IV. Gower was rewarded with an ornamental collar and when Henry was crowned he allowed his poet two pipes of Gascony wine a year. After that, Kings and Queens almost invariably had Laureates, some French, some English, some formally appointed, some informally entertained.

What might usefully have been made of all the 'news' which was not news of the Laureate's succession? For one thing, attention might have been drawn to some of the great poets who have fulfilled the role and to their poems, even if not to their Laureate poems. But when poetry is in the news we can be sure that the last thing the journalist is interested in is poems. The microcosmic politics of 'the scene' where the unacknowledged legislators of mankind busily stab one another in the back is more entertaining than verse. The flower is indeed, in quite another sense, broken on the wheel.

This item is taken from PN Review 127, Volume 25 Number 5, May - June 1999.

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