On May 1st 2009, Carol Ann Duffy became the UK’s twentieth poet laureate and the first woman to hold the post; she thought “long and hard about accepting the offer” and decided to accept because there had never been a woman laureate before and looks on the honour as “recognition of all the great women poets we now have writing like Alice Oswald“.
Following the death of Wordsworth, the first woman to be considered for the post was Elizabeth Barrett Browning but Tennyson was chosen instead. Nearly half a century later, Christina Rossetti was rejected and the position left vacant until Alfred Austin, whom some consider to be the worst laureate ever, was appointed in 1896.
It is claimed that he wrote the following lines on the occasion of the Prince of Wales’ illness : ‘Across the wires, the electric message came/he is no better, he is much the same’
Ben Jonson is said to be the first to hold the Laureateship – conferred on him by James I. Previous modern Laureates include Cecil Day Lewis, John Betjeman and Ted Hughes.
Carol Ann Duffy is one of the bestselling British poets and has combined critical and popular success which is not easy to achieve in a field which is often thought to belong a minority taste. Her book ‘The World’s Wife’ is a collection in which every poem is told from the point of view of a wife or relation of a famous man; from Pilate’s wife, Mrs Darwin to Elvis’s twin sister. She has also written poetry and picture books for children and is currently the creative director of the writing school at Manchester Metropolitan University.
The Laureateship is a government post and its remit is to compose poems about state occasions but Duffy has said that she thinks her new role should be much more democratic than it has been formerly. She hopes to be more people’s poet than a one serving only the Royal Family and that she would “not write a poem for Edward and Sophie – no self-respecting poet should have to”. Like her predecessor Andrew Motion she wants to use her standing as laureate to promote poetry. She plans to donate her yearly stipend of £5,750 to the Poetry Society to fund a new prize for the best collection published during a particular year. The “butt of sack” (600 bottles of sherry) to which the Laureate is also entitled, has yet to be allocated to Motion so she has jokingly asked if hers can be delivered up front.
Andrew Motion’s greatest achievement during his time as laureate was to set up the Poetry Archive with the recording producer Richard Carrington. They felt that while actors can sometimes read poetry very well, it is often more illuminating and interesting to hear a poet read his or her works. Many poets, even those writing in the recent past, had not been recorded. Through the work of the Poetry Archive, contemporary poets have now been recorded and it is possible to buy CDs of their work from the website. Poets whose work is out of copyright can be accessed on the website including Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin and W.B.Yeats.
Andrew Motion is the first Laureate to resign the post; all the others died in harness. Work written during his tenure include poems for the Queen’s 80th birthday, the death of the Queen Mother and a rap for Prince William’s 21st birthday. He has advised his successor of the dangers of being thrust into the limelight and to take steps to preserve her privacy. Another disadvantage associated with the post is the danger of writer’s block: Motion says that he has been unable to write anything apart from poems for official occasions in the last five years. He read out his final lines as a public poet last week which finished thus: “The duty of writing /Lines sharp and exciting / On this – it ain’t mine but my heir’s as PL”.