While the poem is undoubtedly well crafted, it positions Prince Philip as the last of a series of ‘Patriarchs’, who ‘fought ingenious wars’ rather than a man whose racist “quips” have been splashed across articles for years, part of the monarchy that left the stain of empire and colonialism across the world. Of course, what else are we to expect from the Poet Laureate, a role started by the monarchy in 1616 with poets chosen by the Queen? There is an expectation that the Poet Laureate will write on significant national occasions and royal events, despite this no longer being an official requirement. The death of Prince Philip will have no significant impact on the day to day lives of most people in this country, and it would be fair to ask why this is considered significant where other events, such as the Windrush scandal, are not.
“I saw it as a prompt for writing something dutiful, and in service of all people like him.” Armitage said. And indeed, the Poet Laureate is in service to people like Prince Philip.
Armitage’s predecessor, Carol Ann Duffy, certainly made strides in terms of representation when she was the first Laureate to be Scottish, the first to be a woman, and the first to be openly gay. Nevertheless, in a role where payment takes the form of a cask of sherry, an annual honorarium of £5,750, and prestige, a certain level of “respectability” is undoubtedly expected. When studying Shakespeare – who was similarly commissioned by the monarchy to write – we acknowledge the contents must include some deference to his employer by default. Yet this seems to be forgotten in the case of the Poet Laureate, who is instead transcended to represent the voice of an entire nation.
A single poet could never represent the diversity of thought contained within a country. More concerningly, being a de facto employee of the crown means that there is only a limited kind and amount of revolutionary or political poetry indirectly allowed, which never include critique of the monarchy.
A single poet could never represent the diversity of thought contained within a country.
Notable poet Benjamin Zephaniah ruled himself out of taking the title for this very reason, tweeting in response to his consideration as Duffy’s replacement:
“I have absolutely no interest in this job. I won’t work for them. They oppress me, they upset me, and they are not worthy.
“I write to connect with people and have never felt the need to go via the church, the state, or the monarchy to reach my people. No money. Freedom or death.”
Many poets have done similarly to Zephaniah, with poet Wendy Cope ruling herself out while Thomas Gray, Samuel Rogers and Walter Scott all turned down the laureateship.
Is it time to move on from the laureateship, from the idea of a national steward of poetry? Perhaps. Yet you only must look at America’s first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate, 22-year-old Amanda Gorman, and her inauguration poem, to see the impact one person in such a role can have. Perhaps the answer for us is also to expand the support, funding, and prestige available for talented poets, to create a similar National Youth Poet Laureate position. Perhaps the answer is not to abolish the Poet Laureate, but to expand and support national representative poets with funding from different directions. If you want more poetry, of a different kind, the answer is not to remove what little funded positions there are for poets, but to replace and expand them in new and exciting directions.
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