Saturday, May 02, 2009

FEATURE 26 - A Poet Laureate for the Noughties

So the first female Poet Laureate has been chosen. I hope Carol Anne Duffy fares better in the post than Andrew Motion, who appeared to receive a bit of a critical mauling. Though he dutifully fulfilled his brief to write doggerel for royal occasions, he also tried to carve out a new role for the Laureate as a spokesman who could actively promote and proselytise on behalf of poetry in general. I would imagine he, like many Laureates before him ( and they have always been a 'him' previously ) wanted to break out of the restrictions inherent to this royally appointed position. In desperate need of redefinition, the role of Poet Laureate can easily choke,rather than release the poetic stream. Motion, wisely and laudably, attempted to stimulate public interest and to re-inject poetry back into the popular cultural mainstream. That he was the first Laureate to attempt to do this may turn out to be his one enduring legacy. It's unlikely to be for his poetry.

Unfortunately for Motion, he is not eccentric or loveable in the way John Betjamin was. He isn't a populist poet either, in style or content. His appearence is like a design consultant, or a jobbing actor. He has an intellectually measured, imaginatively refined voice, there is little that strikes you as passionate or able to move ones heart in his verses. The tone easily becomes emotionally neutered in some way. Like many a Poet Laureate before him, he's failed to blossom as a poet whilst occupying the position, quite the opposite. The appointment may be a poisoned chalice, only given to poets once they are past there best, or that somehow it effectively poisons or strangles the muse before your eyes... and ears. Motion is also a man, which fails to win you many brownie points these days, only a sort of grudging attention surrounded with suspicion about the Poet Laureate being an all male, and therefore automatically suspect, preserve. Thankfully the back of this accusation has now been broken. But still, its not a good time for any man of vision to be in a position of authority, unless you are Barak Obama of course.

Carol Anne Duffy as a woman, better fits the prevailing zeitgeist. She is that rare poet who is both lauded by critics and popular with the Womans Hour/Guardian reader set. She is also, from the start, a much more emotionally accessible poet than Motion. Stylistically versatile, she's able to strike chords of wit and empathy in her predominantly female audience, establishing herself with a distinctive voice, in both subject matter and emotional tone. She is by no means a writer of light jovial verse in the vein of Pan Ayres, she's able to plumb the psychological depths, but does so without being consumed by them, which was Sylvia Plaths fate. Ayres and Plath were woman born into an entirely different era, where women had to constantly make light of their lot, or collapse under the psychic weight of accumulated frustration. Duffy is part of a more recent generation of female poets who've moved out of the Apollonian shadow of masculine imagery, and forged a strongly developed vein of the Dionysian and the feminine at the cutting edge of contemporary poetry, and society in general.

Because she's the first woman appointed to the position, she'll probably get a much easier ride than any male occupant would. Her gender will keep the questioning critical voices at bay, for awhile - why, whether occupied by a male or a female, do we need a Poet Laureate in the first place, what, in the 21st Century could be its purpose, and how could it ever be made relevant? Her newly incumbant presence, also continues the ongoing re-shaping of societies perceptions and prejudices, to re-carve the dominant artistic perspective in a more feminine friendly image. Perhaps only someone whose gender, culture or race makes them a de-facto establishment outsider, will be able to successfully redefine the position of Poet Laureate in our collective imagination. This sort of transformation of an institution is something a White Anglo-Saxon Male, either is not allowed to do, or is simply unable to do in these multi-cultural times. The W.A.S.M is, after all, the all pervasive dark oppressor, the arche enemy of egalitarianism. In the 'noughties' if there are new strong and distinctive male poetic voices out there, it is getting increasingly harder to hear them. Women in the past were unable to access or set the cultural agenda because of male dominance of its creed and colour. Those tables seem already to be turning, or have already turned, presenting a deaf ear to the masculine. The voice of the Apollonian beast, if not gagged, has become a mere whisper of its former self. It appears you'll not hear its like again, at least for some time.

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