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This item is taken from PN Review 128, Volume 25 Number 6, July - August 1999.

In the literary world, one thing's certain: when the Vatican on Parnassus emits the plume of white smoke, a natural collegiality unites the extended clerissy of poets. They spontaneously sound a single cry of celebration: from Hampstead to Gonville and Caius, from Newcastle to Peru, a palpable sense of satisfaction: habemus laureatum.

And so it isn't and so it wasn't with the appointment of Andrew Motion as Poet Laureate in succession to Ted Hughes. A French newspaper announced that Andrew Morton was taking up the post. That decision would have found more favour with Motion's foes than the actuality did. In Britain, newspapers trawled for malicious comment. How hectic the poetry world can be, how sour and unjust. Long may the unacknowledged legislators remain unacknowledged.

Andrew Motion's credentials for the laureateship are real ones. A good poet, he is more deliberately and resourcefully experimental in forms and prosodies than any of the others the media told us (wrongly, as it happens) to watch out for. He is a fine critic and biographer. As a teacher at East Anglia it may be assumed that he has helped new writers of prose and verse; as Chairman of Literature Panel of the Arts Council of England and a member of the Arts Council Board he has certainly fought Literature's little corner with remarkable success. He has individual talent and a civic vocation unusual among English writers. His detractors are as hectic as they are ignorant of his work in and for poetry. There were what the newspapers, thinking less of poetry and more of journalism, called 'more exciting candidates', but few who were better qualified.

A misunderstanding of the role of laureate has dogged the too slow process of selection. In the light of this misunderstanding, the role has been adjusted. Not to a Blairite People's Poet: Carole Hughes's timely intervention helped preserve the laureateship according to Hughes's, Betjeman's and others' understanding of the post. But apparently Andrew Motion intends to be laureate for a limited term. Though we will not be subjected - however long Motion decides to live - to anything like the virtual eternity of Masefield's tenure, this change in the job description means that in 2009 poets will be competing for what in the past has been sprung upon us by the Reaper himself. Perhaps they will compete as, in the past, poets competed for the Chair of Poetry at Oxford.

That's a very different institution from the laureateship. In a primitive sort of way, it's aboveboard, democratic - or it was. MAs of the University from every discipline used to be entitled to vote for one of a range of candidates (each nominated by fellow MAs). For my part I should have welcomed a chance to vote for James Fenton's successor. I have voted in the past five elections, invariably for losing candidates. This time, I thought I might be on to a winner: among the potential candidates I would have considered with real interest was Paul Muldoon. Alas, Paul Muldoon was not offered to us as a candidate. Indeed, we MAs who do not teach at or live in Oxford were disenfranchised by what appears to have been a cynical manipulation of the regulations. It would probably be wrong to suggest illegality. All the same, a new professor was imposed, without the cheerful electoral ceremony and banter, and therefore without the legitimacy, which accrued to Robert Graves, W.H. Auden, Roy Fuller, Seamus Heaney and others; without scandals of exclusion (of Lowell for instance, and Yevtushenko); without the joke candidates and the genuine polemics. What was a serious carnival has been replaced by - what? A sombre back-room plot? Are the ground of poetry and the claims of merit so very threatened, so insecure, that they need protecting by deviousness?

Now Paul Muldoon will never run for the office or enjoy the legitimacy of his predecessors. Insofar as the terms of the post have been practised over the past thirty-five years, he has been differently appointed. It was announced that he had been 'elected unopposed'. This may have been because the deadline for nominations was unannounced, the dates of the election were unannounced: all eyes were fixed on the laureateship, if they were fixed on anything at all, and a cabal of Oxford MAs quietly 'made it happen'. I imagine that in technical terms this doing away with democracy, spearheaded - rumour has it - by an Ulster poet from Leeds, was 'legal', and if things are legally done, never mind whether they are proper or not. But would Paul Muldoon not have prefered the willing approbation of the University to the manipulation of the system?

Does the Oxford Chair of Poetry matter? In a sense it does: it indicates - or indicated - what graduates of the University made of the art of poetry. Some years they made little of it; other years an emphatic honour was conferred on a candidate. After the undebated alteration in protocols, this will become another post battled for by vested interests, like the new Poetry Fellowship at Christ Church, where people 'in the know' announced the outcome well before the interviews took place. I am sorry that so good a poet and so warm and witty a critic as Paul Muldoon has been made the occasion for this wilful alteration in a venerable institution which he would have dignified had he been properly elected.

Nessie Dunsmuir, the widow of W.S.Graham, has died. 'Nessie Dunsmuir, I say/Wheesht wheesht to myself/To help me now to go//Under into somewhere/In the redcoat rain./Buckle me for the war.' Thus Graham wrote in his wonderful love poem 'To My Wife at Midnight', celebrating the Eros of old age. And in the Greville Press pamphlet of Graham's poems selected by Nessie this poem is put last: his tribute to a real Muse who helped him through the hard middle years and shared his late success. Those of us who heard Graham read at the Cambridge Poetry Festival a couple of decades ago remember how, as he started reading 'Johann Joaquim Quantz's Five Flute Lessons', he cried out into the darkened hall, 'Nessie, are you there?' Her small voice replied, 'I'm here, Sydney, I'm here.' With this reassurance he was able to continue with his reading. Elsewhere he wrote, 'Hold on to me and step/Over the world's thorns.'

This item is taken from PN Review 128, Volume 25 Number 6, July - August 1999.

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