Does anyone care who replaces Andrew Motion as Britain’s next laureate? I do! Even Kipling said, “that poets shouldn’t be paid servants of the state.” But then what was Kipling doing coming up with inscriptions for war memorials? The way Britain conceives of its laureate is faintly ridiculous, but it has its advantages.
1. Nearly all writers, artists and poets are treated by the British press as celebrities, qua celebrities. Like the Archbishop of Canterbury, the press covers whatever the poet laureate says. It’s the last vestige of respect left in the news for pure aesthetic values. (eg. “Children should be taught the Bible throughout their education because it is an ‘essential piece of cultural luggage‘ without which they will struggle to fully understand literature, according to the poet laureate, Andrew Motion.”)
2. The laureate might be a part of the court and have to gratingly flatter royalty. But that’s better than being in the academy, where the top posts involve flattering professors by repeating their idees recus.
3. We need to get much better at occasional poems. If Elizabeth Alexander had more practice by trying to come up with things to say about Prince William’s 21st birthday, maybe she’d have come up with something better than this pap for a moment of actual world-historical significance. If Wendy Cope doesn’t feel comfortable doing it, that’s fine. But don’t ban the position on her account! It would be good to get the laureate reading poems at more government functions, or adding them as introductions to government reports.
4. Historical continuity. Knocking the laureate is as revered a tradition as appointing one. Wendy Cope joins Byron. Andrew Motion joins Southey.