How Relevant Is the Poet Laureate Today?

Carol Ann Duffy's poem about Stephen Lawrence is clearly something we would want of our laureate. But that raises the issue of what we actually expect of Carol Ann Duffy, if indeed we expect anything at all.

The question was prompted by Channel 4 broadcaster Jon Snow's comment appearing in my Twitter feed on Saturday: "This is what i want of a poet laureate! Brilliant Carol Ann Duffy poem re Stephen Lawrence".

The new poem is a moving tribute to Stephen Lawrence following the murder convictions last week and an apt snapshot of the feeling that, after all these years, some justice has been served.

I agree with Snow; the poem is clearly something we would want of our laureate. But that raises the issue of what we actually expect of Carol Ann Duffy, if indeed we expect anything at all.

The appointment of Duffy in 2009 received much media attention. There was a great deal of focus on the fact that she is Britain's first female poet laureate, as well as on the suggestions that she had not been chosen previously because of Tony Blair's concerns over middle England's reaction to a gay woman taking up the position.

The title has been held by some illustrious names, such as Dryden, Wordsworth and Tennyson. Ted Hughes held the post until his death in 1998 and was succeeded by Sir Andrew Motion, who was the first to be appointed for a fixed term of ten years.

The role of poet laureate has changed somewhat in genetic makeup since its origin - Dryden was the first to gain the official royal title in 1668 - and the position is now honorary, rather than stipulating specific duties. In the past, the post involved closer ties with the monarchy and the laureate would be required to write court odes for the sovereign.

Today, it is the poet's own choice whether he or she wants to mark royal occasions and national events. Although there were indications that she would not be writing about last year's royal wedding, Duffy wrote a poem entitled 'Rings' and commissioned pieces from 20? other poets, including John Agard, Jackie Kay, Liz Lochhead and Wendy Cope. The poems were not specific to the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton, but took on the more universal theme of vows.

This use of collaboration, which was also seen with her commissioning of war poetry, is one of Duffy's great successes since her appointment, bringing to our attention the talented field of poets that we have. Later this year, she will draw together the work of 60 poets to celebrate the 60 years of the Queen's reign in an anthology entitled Jubilee Lines, which I hope will feature some fresh voices.

Duffy's predecessor, Motion, did much to promote poetry. This is one aspect of the role that we have come to expect from our poet laureate. The effort that Duffy has made to bring together the writing of her fellow poets is evidence that she is using, and intends to use, her influence to do the same. She spoke out against the funding cuts affecting the Poetry Book Society and I would suggest that we need our laureate to be vocal about such matters.

There are some who believe that Motion's writing suffered as a result of his laureateship. It seems so far that Duffy has not had a similar problem; her first collection of new poetry since being appointed, The Bees, was announced as the winner of the Costa Poetry Award last week.

The book contains poems such as 'Big Ask', about the Iraq War, and 'Last Post', which was written in tribute to the deaths of Henry Allingham and Harry Patch. These subject matters are clearly very relevant to the British public.

My criticism is that our laureate could still go further in using her influence, particularly with regards to employing online means. I struggled to find all the work she is doing in one place, including the collective work mentioned earlier; a lot of it was published in the Guardian review section and other such outlets, which perhaps restricts accessibility unless people are directed towards it.

Of course, her writing is found in published collections but the lack of a strong interactive platform at the moment is a missed opportunity. While launching a poetry competition for secondary school pupils, Duffy said: "The poem is a form of texting". Here, she is demonstrating a wish to make poetry more appealing to young people. Surely a strong online base is essential to this.

I, perhaps like many others, first encountered Duffy while studying GCSE English. Her style of poetry is indeed accessible and no doubt she will continue to tackle topical issues. Her work in drawing together the writing of her contemporaries and promoting poetry in Britain should be praised.

The poet laureate does remain relevant today - but more can be done.


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