Poet Laureate and The Gibshite


Since my previous comments here on the potential poet to succeed Carol Ann Duffy as Poet Laureate, there have been a number of dissenting voices about the whole process/idea which I have read and agreed with entirely, not least a few days ago when Benjamin Zephaniah announced he wouldn’t be in the least bit interested, not wanting to work for the ‘oppressors’. Quite right, and it is that notion of succession too that galls, as well as the roll of the UK Government in the selection process [see in a moment…] and that particularly of the Prime Minister, Theresa May having yesterday in Belgium placed on a memorial grave her snippet of a poem to the first and last British soldiers killed in the First World War, this a few lines of the infamously romanticised verse from Rupert Brooke, who never actually made it physically to the war, let alone fight.

The UK Government involvement is, like the whole process, a tradition, so this will continue, but when the likes of Nick Gibb [I genuinely first mistyped that as Gobb] Minister for School Standards gets involved, we know it is in the hands of philistines and dumb people. Here is his contribution to the rationale for supporting poetry and a Poet Laureate:

We hope that relaunching the National Poetry Competition will inspire children to read and write poetry and learn from the way the best poets use language.

Our focus on phonics in primary schools is helping more young children open up the joys of the written and spoken word, with 163,000 more six-year-olds on track to be fluent readers than in 2012. This means the world of poetry has never been more accessible to young people.


This is the relentless pathetic politicking from this man and the Conservatives, but it is also just stupid. ‘Phonics in primary schools’ does not make poetry ‘more accessible’! Writing poetry does. Reading poetry does. Having poets working with students in schools does. And of course, this is so obvious yet it seems wrong to ignore. He started it!

So this might sound like I am being defensive in promoting my choice/ideas for the future roll, but I don’t think it is. If the position was cancelled tomorrow, I would be fine with that decision. But it won’t. So I think we should hope/urge for someone who can relate to others and who can promote a poetry that engages and interests and maybe even inspires. And there should be other amendments, like the time frame, but there won’t be immediately, so perhaps this should be worked on too because these relatively ‘good’ choices and possible amendments are more likely to happen than the entire edifice being dismantled.

A Thank You Still Observed

tractorThe Observer Magazine recently ran a weekly column where you could write in with a 250 word ‘thank you’ to anyone/people important in your life. I submitted a piece but never heard back. Having already written this, and concisely [not always a strength], I now post here:

A quick note to say…

Thanks to my farm worker friends.

My first full-time job was in the mid-70s as a 19 year old agricultural labourer on a large farm in Suffolk. I worked there for three hard but wonderful years.

I learned to drive tractors and use farm implements; lay irrigation pipes and operate new irrigating machinery; riddle potatoes then fill and stack in 112lb hessian bags; muck out cow pens by hand or with a tractor and loader in large sheds; feed sweet maize silage to livestock in barns; work a straw bale grab and stacker; operate a fork-lift truck; hand-harvest sugar beet, and significantly more.

I was taught these skills and a work ethic by fellow labourers. Friends like George, my main working partner, tough as a bull and full of energy with endless patience for the job – and me. Inspirations like Arthur, my mountain of a foreman, who encouraged with such a gentle, innate leadership. Bob for the craft of wooding and fencing and being a still-point of authority; Ricky for my understanding the purpose of a keeper’s gibbet and other farmers’ arts.

This period shaped my life, much into my teaching career of thirty years where their collective wisdoms informed what I should value personally and convey in my own ways with students and others. I am forever privileged and grateful to have known them.

Tar Barrels of Ottery

Heard the hand-held cannons firing from the four corners of our town this morning, starting at 5.30 am. Looking forward to these making their noisy rounds of the pubs this lunchtime, and later this evening going to watch the lighting of the bonfire and then the rollers running by us with their burning barrels.

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[illustration by Chris Wakefield]

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‘The Calls’ – Wilfred Owen

Along with his poem Dulce et Decorum Est, this is one of Owen’s most poignant comments on war.

I have read it called ‘not a great poem’ which I understand, but it seems a pointless and unnecessary observation. Where Dulce et Decorum Est is one of Owen’s finest poetic realisations [excusing the focus of that expression], for me The Calls is as important as any of his others in what it says both about camaraderie and the harsh reality of war, though not as graphically as some.

It is the context and the poem’s final stanza and last line that signifies its impact and importance. Written I believe when Owen was convalescing at Craiglockhart War Hospital, he expresses his genuine sense of commitment to his comrades – this from the officer soldier who told us so clearly what he thought of the lies about war – and he did return voluntarily, not having to, and was killed on this day 100 years ago, one week before the declaration of the war’s end.

The Calls

A dismal fog-hoarse siren howls at dawn.
I watch the man it calls for, pushed and drawn
Backwards and forwards, helpless as a pawn.
But I’m lazy, and his work’s crazy.

Quick treble bells begin at nine o’clock,
Scuttling the schoolboy pulling up his sock,
Scaring the late girl in the inky frock.
I must be crazy; I learn from the daisy.

Stern bells annoy the rooks and doves at ten.
I watch the verger close the doors, and when
I hear the organ moan the first amen,
Sing my religion’s-same as pigeons’.

A blatant bugle tears my afternoons.
Out clump the clumsy Tommies by platoons,
Trying to keep in step with rag-time tunes,
But I sit still; I’ve done my drill.

Gongs hum and buzz like saucepan-lids at dusk,
I see a food-hog whet his gold-filled tusk
To eat less bread, and more luxurious rusk.

Then sometimes late at night my window bumps
From gunnery-practice, till my small heart thumps
And listens for the shell-shrieks and the crumps,
But that’s not all.

For leaning out last midnight on my sill
I heard the sighs of men, that have no skill
To speak of their distress, no, nor the will!
A voice I know. And this time I must go.

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]