What is a Poet Laureate?
Poet Laureates originated with the ancient Greeks and Romans when poetic achievement was honoured by a crown of laurels (the laurel tree being sacred to the god Apollo, the patron of poets. The title was first granted in England in the seventeenth century. James the First gave the playwright and poet, Ben Jonson, a pension from 1616, but the first poet to hold the title was John Dryden who was granted the position for life, as were all his successors until Andrew Motion. He took the post in 1999 for a set time of ten years. He was followed by Carol Ann Duffy (the first woman laureate) in 2009, and her replacement, Simon Armitage, has just been appointed to replace her. Famous poets from the past who have held the position include William Wordsworth and Alfred, Lord Tennyson and, more recently, Sir John Betjeman and Ted Hughes.
In the USA, a poet laureate has been appointed annually since 1936; the current incumbent being Tracy K Smith. The US laureate holds the chair of poetry for the library of Congress and the laureate title was not used until 1985. There is a modest stipend and the US poet laureate is expected to write one major poetic work and attend a range of national events during their tenure.
The English poet laureate no longer has any specific poetic duties and, although Ben Jonson had a pension of £200 (quite a sum in 1616), the post is now largely honorary. A butt of canary wine was added in 1630 for a time. John Betjeman successfully petitioned to have the tradition re-instated, albeit replaced by 720 bottles of sherry.
There had been speculation that the Scottish-Asian-Muslim-female poet, Imtiaz Dhorker, would be the 2019 poet, but she felt the role would interfere too much with her own writing. Simon Armitage has all the ‘disadvantages’ of being a white, middle aged, middle class, university educated male. But he also happens to be a poet of considerable stature, whose work is both profound and accessible, and who is comfortable promoting poetry on radio and TV. So he is an excellent choice. He proposes to use his term in office to bring the power of poetry to addressing climate change.
This is not a sudden trendy impulse on his behalf. As he wrote in his poem, In Praise of Air:
‘My first word, everyone’s first word, was air.’
(And, from the sublime to the – hopefully – not too ridiculous) Links to my books and social media:
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