May 06, 2009

The Coincidental Laureate

As various other bloggers noted during the Text Festival, Carol Ann Duffy was coincidentally confirmed as the next poet laureate. In the blogs I saw there was only mild criticism of quality of her writing, though I felt that the irony hung in the air that it should be announced in Manchester concurrently with (but disconnected from) the Festival. However in the Thinking Environment Symposium on the Festival Sunday there was more open anger at the appointment. The symposium was an invitation only workshop for the festival artists, premised on the idea that Festivals and conferences usually expect things from their participants and don’t very often give them something back (except some small payment). The artists were offered the space to develop their thinking about their own practice and collaborative ways forward for innovative work (I will return to this in a future blog). The anger expressed at the Duffy appointment was not a major feature of the day’s thinking but is worth thinking about. On face value the anger is legitimate (especially for UK poets who had to live with the doggerel that Andrew Motion came out with and who have not much greater expectation of Duffy). I certainly have complained about the dismal quality of laureate writing many times here and elsewhere, and sometimes with the same anger. However, in the Thinking Environment it occurred to me that the anger was misplaced. We complain that Poet Laureates are mainstream poets – and frequently not even the ‘most capable’ of that empty ‘school’. But actually that is the job description: the poet is recommended on a list drawn up by someone in Government and presented to the Queen who chooses the one she likes. The poet is then approached indirectly to see if they would accept if asked. If they accept they are appointed if they refuse they were never asked – because a subject can’t refuse the Monarch. Even poets in the mainstream have problems with this; I vaguely recall that Andrew Motion wasn’t the first person who wasn’t asked. As a person, when I have met her, Carol Ann Duffy has always been nice to me – I remember her appreciating my explanation of how to read Lyn Hejinian’s Writing is an Aid to Memory and she was once very kind when I needed personal support, and I also had a sense that there was at least some backbone of (feminist) political principle. Fundamentally and obviously the Poet Laureate is the Establishment’s representation of itself, it is an appropriation. This era’s mainstream poets accept because of the carrot that they can use it to promote poetry in general; it is represented as a platform, so despite the obvious negatives, these poets think that they can use it to get more people reading. I don’t see any evidence of Motion achieving this; admittedly he is such a poor poet reading could hardly be helped (he is now Chairman of the Museums Libraries & Archives Agency, which is an equally pointless governmental organisation).

I think it is instructive to look at the Royal/Establishment use of a different artform: visual art. Does anyone get irritated or angry about the Royal Portrait painters? Every few years a mediocre artist that we have never heard of gets commissioned to paint the Queen’s portrait. It is a news item and the only question inevitably is whether the painting looks like her, with the only question to the nobody painter being ‘what is she like as a model?’ It doesn’t register at all in the art world because visual art has an autonomy of purpose, intent and public-private economy which is driven by newness and the next thing (discussion of the Blairite access corporatism of the Tate & other Empires is too much of a digression here). So the nearest Monarch-Government can come to appropriating contemporary art is the Culture Minister attending the Turner Prize or super-star artists at cocktail parties at Number 10: a reflected glory that they can be modern and cool – a state artist would be kitsch. The idea that the Queen could announce that the Turner Prize winner will be designated the official state artist would be laughable, and the official portraitist is in the same way below even that. The anger at the Poet Laureate is often focused on the question of who it is and that there are so many more interesting poets who could do it better, but this is to lose the argument before it starts. The Poet Laureateship is itself the denigration of all poetry. Instead of anger, which exemplifies the artform’s weakness, maybe derision and laughter would be more productive, allied with counter-naming (as Ron Silliman argued in the Thinking Environment): So the post should generally now be referred to as the State Poet – call it what it is – or the Poet Lackey or the Puppy Laureate (although even Barney would refuse the Queen’s offer – Who am I kidding? if she included doggy biscuits, then like the poets who take the job, he will do anything – but at least he would have the transparent canine integrity and lack of conceit to be driven by the urge for biscuits rather than the pathetic obsequiousness of wearing their collar).

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