Forget 'Honorary Jokes': Carol Ann Can Show Us Why Poetry Matters; with Carol Ann Duffy Set to Be Named the 20th Poet Laureate Today, One London Poet Says We Share as Much Passion for Verse as Ever

The Evening Standard (London, England), May 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Forget 'Honorary Jokes': Carol Ann Can Show Us Why Poetry Matters; with Carol Ann Duffy Set to Be Named the 20th Poet Laureate Today, One London Poet Says We Share as Much Passion for Verse as Ever


Byline: OLIVIA COLE

WITH its token [pounds sterling]5,750-ayear salary and case of wine for your trouble, our Poet Laureateship has long been what the outgoing laureate Andrew Motion has affectionately termed an "honorary joke". From Stephen Spender to Philip Larkin, who both declined, the prospect of being asked has traditionally sent poets running for the hills. So who can blame Motion's likely successor, Carol Ann Duffy, for reportedly thinking twice about signing up to a decade of school visits? Motion, who has indefatigably promoted poetry to young people, had done 300 such visits at the last count. In his hands, the laureateship has mattered not so much because of the poems he has written in his public capacity but because he has been on hand to make people listen, to remind politicians and educators of his belief that poetry is not a "weird addition to life but a primitive thing at the centre of life".

It's an unusual conviction and although I, as a poet myself, couldn't agree more, the question of how you go about sharing that passion is a difficult one. For the laureateship is both the highest honour there is for poetry in this country and the task that leaves the poet and poetry most vulnerable to charges of daftness, pretentiousness, irrelevance and inaccessibility.

Since the death of the much-loved John Betjeman in 1984, the laureate and the press have had a vexed relationship.

Even so, for the world of poetry the level of interest this time has been unprecedented. The favourites' names are not household, save for households with teenagers who have studied their poems at school. But I have been struck this week by the remarkable sense that perhaps people care more about poetry than even we poets tend to assume.

Perhaps such optimism sits ill with poetry today. The state of conventional poetry publishing is dire. Even before the recession took hold, there was "no money" in it. Even famous poets have got used to the gap between their books getting longer and longer. The days when rakish young readers clutched the latest cheaply printed Auden on the Tube are long gone.

But the upshot has been the explosion of alternative publishing houses such as Bloodaxe and Salt. Running on a shoestring, they have managed to get new poets published -- even if sales are minuscule.

And whereas Yeats once wondered how books would get a look-in with all the newspapers and magazines, now the written word competes electronically with i-Pods and Facebook. Far from vanishing, contemporary poetry from all over the world has become accessible on the internet in a way that blows any library or bookshop out of the water.

From Clive James's online library of contemporary poetry to Motion's new Poetry Archive, where 150,000 readers look at a million pages of poetry a month, more poetry is being read. That's not all. Whether on screen or on the printed page, poetry still matters because it can seem as modern and as relevant as the grittiest of dramas or the most provocative of artworks.

Take Simon Armitage's unflinching love poem, I am Very Bothered, with its uncomfortable recollection of accidentally branding the object of his teenage desire's fingers with a pair of scissors heated over the "naked, lilac flame" of a bunsen burner: "O the unrivalled stench of branded skin...//Don't believe me, please, if I say/that was just my butterfingered way, at thirteen,/of asking you if you would marry me. …

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Forget 'Honorary Jokes': Carol Ann Can Show Us Why Poetry Matters; with Carol Ann Duffy Set to Be Named the 20th Poet Laureate Today, One London Poet Says We Share as Much Passion for Verse as Ever
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