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Simon Parke:Taking the poetic flak

01 April 2009

IT IS NOT all amusing ditties about the corgis, and cosy reflections on young royals’ finding their feet. In fact, our departing Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, found that “No writing is as hard as this.”

Novelist, biographer, and poet, Andrew Motion followed Ted Hughes in this post in 1999, but does not seem unfeignedly thankful for the experience. Indeed, he says that the appointment has been “very, very damaging to his work”, although both Tony Blair and the Queen told him at the outset that he “wouldn’t have to do anything”.

Whether this was good psy­chology is open to question. It is hardly a Churchillian call to arms. Most people hope that their new job might have both substance and meaning. But Poet Laureate — official poet to the English monarch — is not your average employment.

The post was first officially con­ferred on John Dryden by Charles II in 1670, although Chaucer, in the 14th century, was called Poet Lau­reate and granted an annual allow­ance of wine. Both Wordsworth and Tennyson gave the declining post much-needed impetus in the 19th century, but approached it in differ­ent ways. Before taking the job, Words­worth stipulated that no formal effusions of sentiment should be expected of him; but Tennyson had no such qualms: he was happy to effuse royally.

Big literary names have turned down the post, including Sir Walter Scott, William Morris, and Philip Larkin; and you certainly would not take it for the money. Traditionally, the stipend has been £100 per an­num and a vat of wine. Andrew Motion recently received an in­creased yearly fee of £5000; but he has become the first Poet Laureate to retire voluntarily for 400 years.

He says that the eight royal poems he has written — including pieces on Prince Charles’s marriage to Camilla Parker Bowles, and the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday — have been the hardest of his life. He needs empathy in order to write; he needs to be able to relate the event to his own experience. Where there is no empathy, there is no poem.

He was, however, able to compose “Regime Change”, a protest piece at the invasion of Iraq. It is a speech by Death, a bleak figure he has lived with himself. When he was 17, his mother had a riding accident, and spent the next nine years in and out of a coma before she died.

“To have had ten years working as laureate has been remarkable,” he told The Guardian. “Sometimes, it has been remarkably difficult — the laureate has to take a lot of flak, one way or another. More often, it’s been remarkably fulfilling. I’m glad I did it, and glad to be giving it up.”

We walk the earth, scattering our truth. And sometimes the poet will sow it in soil that is royal.


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