Poet Laureate; Honour Or Oppression?
Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson
The position of poet laureate is a historic tradition dating back to 1616 whereby a poet is appointed to write for the current monarchy. Previously, the poet was required to write for the crown and fulfil a number of duties but the modern laureate holds no job description, receives a small salary and is not technically required to do anything. They are expected, rather than obligated, to write poems about national events, for example Royal weddings and Jubilees.
It used to be a position for life but upon the death of Ted Hughes in 1999, Andrew Motion was appointed for a fixed term of ten years. This appointment sparked controversy as Carol Ann Duffy, one of the poets in line for the title, was rumoured to have missed out as Tony Blair was nervous about how England would react to a poet laureate that was openly gay.
Ten years later however, it seemed perfectly acceptable for Duffy to be appointed laureate, but her ten-year position will shortly be coming to an end, sparking talk of the next laureate.
The position of poet laureate has long been considered an honour, perhaps one of the highest that a British poet can receive. However, the need for the position in the twenty-first century has often been argued. We are a country that is no longer ruled by our monarchy and the idea of a court poet seems just as outdated as the idea of a court jester. Previous laureate Andrew Motion spoke out at the end of his tenure, claiming the job was “incredibly difficult and entirely thankless”. (The Independent)
Fresh controversy has been spiked as Arts Industry Magazine tweeted its list of front-runners for the soon-to-be vacant position of poet laureate on Monday. Amongst those suggested was Benjamin Zephaniah, anarchist writer and musician, who swiftly responded with his rebuttal:
“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.”
As an outspoken anarchist, it is hardly surprising that Zephaniah would rally against the idea of writing for government and royalty. Twitter, predictably, lit up with responses to Zephaniah’s words. He received praise from many for his refusal to be part of ‘the system’ however some felt that taking on such a position would give him the opportunity to change the frame work from within.
Zephaniah is no stranger to rebelling against the state. In 2003 he turned down an OBE, saying:
“I do not write poems to win awards or to get OBEs or laureateships. I write for people.” (The Canary)
Zephaniah is not alone in his refusal to have anything to do with the long-honoured position. In 2008, Wendy Cope said she did not want to be laureate and called for the post to be abolished the following year. Looking further back in history, renowned writers Rudyard Kipling and William Morris, the latter an anarchist like Zephaniah, also turned down official offers.
The buzz surrounding the next laureate is focused upon representing Britain’s black and ethnic minority communities but Zephaniah remains adamant that he does not want to be an instrument for the government. His refusal to toe the line, so to speak, represents and perhaps even celebrates a freedom that was for so long not granted to black people.