The Next UK Poet Laureate Should Show Some Sissayness Before Alliteration

Yes It’s Sassiness, But Do They Need To Spell?

I knew Carol Anne Duffy’s time as the UK’s Poet Laureate was coming to an end and should have been thinking about the succession to this word-thrown, but I hadn’t until reading Simon Armitage’s article about it in The Guardian on Friday.

I’m not quite sure if he is/was making a pitch for the position from third base, seeming to cast a general rather than come-and-get-me commentary, and I’m still not sure if he is/was being satirical or genuinely pompous [I feel there is a tad of the latter] in claiming the following as a criteria for selection,

If you put the laurel crown on your head and you haven’t read the whole of Beowulf or the Iliad, or don’t know who wrote Lycidas, or can’t recite a poem by Sappho or Emily Dickinson, or can’t name a poem by Derek Walcott, then you are not worthy of the role.

It’s not that I mind the overall gist of such an observation – the eventual awardee knowing something genuinely about Poetry – but ‘read the whole of Beowulf’ and ‘who wrote Lycidas’ smacks of some self-promotion.

Whateva. Recommendations and final selection will be like anything to do with Art: it is just an opinion and it is based on fashion and familiarity and fortuity and friggin-beholders [Armitage will know well that line is alliterative because this technique appears in a number of his poems]. As for familiarity: there will be many hundreds of thousands of former and current GCSE English Literature students from the past two decades and now who would at least have heard of Simon Alliteration, I mean Armitage, should his name be touted. Whether in that hearing there would be an immediate cheer or groan will depend on the grades these students eventually achieved or will achieve and whether many still view all hitch-hikers as psychopaths.

I will obviously be interested in the nominees, presumably selected by a panel of poetry people, or some other tradition I can’t be bothered to research*. In 2008 the public was given a list of potential UK Poet Laureate names to consider and vote on, but in as much as the public’s Boaty McBoatface – relegated to the name for the Autosub Long Range-class of autonomous underwater vehicles used for scientific research that will be carried on the research vessel for which the public actually voted as its name but was subsequently called the RRS Sir David Attenborough owned by the Natural Environment Research Council and operated by the British Antarctic Survey – was never therefore fully accepted and realised, I do wonder at the currency of our suggestions.

I’m suspecting the nominees we are given will be quite traditional. It is a bit like Wimbledon Tennis Club and its all-white clothing rule for players: it is steeped in some fusty sense of protocol and permanence, too entrenched in repetition to ever be re-considered. Oh, and very British. I know, I know, but I am implying an extrapolation.

My recommendations? It won’t be surprising if I firstly mention Benjamin Zephaniah who was a strong contender in 2008 and who has established a significant reputation for his consistently purposeful and engaging poetic voice, not least for his representation of a diverse British culture in its widest meaningfulness. There is Roger McGough who is a genuine voice of the people, be it more those of my generation. A poetic voice from the outfield miles beyond third base [yes, I know this and the previous are American touchstones, but as I am…] would be Martin Stannard who is consistently original and amusing and complex and knows exactly – and I do mean exactly – what kind of poetry he does and does not like. I would be more than content with John Cooper-Clarke, especially after reading his sharp, witty and informed interview in last week’s Observer Magazine.

I’d be happy with any of these and many more which it makes little sense to illustrate further because I want to suggest my main choice.

It is Lemn Sissay. I have used ‘voice of the people’ re. McGough and I think that applies in a very general sense but perhaps most importantly on number of people who have read his work and seen him read, but I think Lemn may well be the most active poet writing but certainly performing his work here in the UK, and all over the world. It was in thinking of Lemn that I immediately didn’t like Armitage’s line from his article It should be a poet who listens more than they talk, which I do ‘get’ as someone who talks the talk but cannot walk [there you go Simon, and that even rhymes], but for me one of Lemn’s distinctive characteristics as a poet and writer is how much he gets out and talks about his work when performing it. He also already writes about national institutions/events [his Olympics poem], and as Chancellor of Manchester University engages in education and promotion regarding poetry and the Arts and much else. And Lemn writes very tall: on all kinds of buildings, inside and out. And there is loads more.

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So I have put this out there. That’s my suggestion. It is just opinion. Many won’t agree.

My final suggestion, however, is to reduce the current ten year tenure. Up until and including Ted Hughes’ position as UK’s Poet Laureate, it was a life-long position. I would reduce the ten years to spread the love. Make it five years as a maximum. Maybe two years. Imagine the concentration of output when given this window of wonderfulness. OK, you might miss out on a Royal Wedding or a Royal Birth to write about, but that would be the special and rewarding luck of the draw. The American Poet Laureate [see, there is a relevance to baseball – and this is called an extended metaphor and Simon Armitage uses this a lot, especially when leaving home] has a tenure of one year. And each individual American State has its own Poet Laureate. I mean, that’s almost socialist.

We know Wimbledon Tennis Club will never change its clothing rule. Baseball will always have a pitcher who throws from a mound. But these are different kinds of tradition, and the rules around selection and duration of the UK’s Poet Laureate could use some shaking up. I think Lemn Sissay would be a good start. I don’t mind, however, if that is two years after Benjamin, and I suspect Lemn wouldn’t either.

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[* Details of the selecting panel can be read here]

2 thoughts on “The Next UK Poet Laureate Should Show Some Sissayness Before Alliteration

  1. Pingback: Poet Laureate and The Gobb | mikeandenglish

  2. Pingback: Armitage and My Tuppence | gravyfromthegazebo

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