For English poets, I guess the ultimate position is that of ‘Poet Laureate’, when a writer is appointed by the government or authority of the day to write poems celebrating special events. The classical world had its poet laureates, and various English courts also had their official minstrels and versifiers (Chaucer was paid by the court in barrels of wine to produce verses), but the official position of Poet Laureate by royal appointment began in 1668 with poet John Dryden. Ben Jonson had been paid a pension by royalty for poetry but no official document was drawn up. He was followed by William Davenant, but when he died it was for Dryden that official contracts were drawn up for the first time for the position.
Poets in the job were expected to write something to mark royal birthdays, the arrival of a new heir to the throne, New Year odes, etc. Wordsworth was the only Poet Laureate to refuse to write to order. He was getting old and so was excused, because his name added lustre to the title. Tennyson didn’t mind obliging (The Charge of the Light Brigade was one of his official poems), and others have also been happy to write what was required. There’s honour, but not much money in the job. In the past alcohol was involved, but the current laureate gets less than £6000 in payment. It was a job for life until Andrew Motion took it on for a term of only 10 years.
There have been some great names in the list – Wordsworth, Southey, Tennyson, Robert Bridges, John Masefield, John Betjeman, Ted Hughes. But there have also been some mistakes – Nicholas Rowe, Laurence Eusden, Colley Cibber, William Whitehead, Thomas Warton, Henry Pye and Alfred Austin – read any of their poems recently?
The current Poet Laureate broke new ground – Carol Ann Duffy was the first woman in the role, the first Scot and the first openly gay person to be Poet Laureate. She was appointed in May 2009 on a fixed ten-year term, so the announcement of the next Poet Laureate should be imminent. Carol’s poems are fabulous – do read some.
Several countries have an official poet, including New Zealand (the position is administered by the National Library). Why doesn’t Australia have a Poet Laureate? I can feel another letter to the government coming on …
Have you read any of Carol Ann Duffy’s poems? How do you think the appointment of an Australian Poet Laureate would benefit our society? Tell me your thoughts by leaving a comment.
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