A Poet Laureate for Australia? God Forbid!

‘Official poetry’ is rarely any good in my mind. It’s the edge of subversion that comes with the poet existing outside the status quo that makes poetry necessary. Though one should be somewhat sceptical of Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary (1911), its savage irony underlines how portentous the tradition of Poet Laureate is. This from an American playing with the word “laureate”:


LAUREATE, adj. Crowned with leaves of the laurel. In England the Poet Laureate is an officer of the sovereign’s court, acting as dancing skeleton at every royal feast and singing-mute at every royal funeral. Of all incumbents of that high office, Robert Southey had the most notable knack at drugging the Samson of public joy and cutting his hair to the quick; and he had an artistic color-sense which enabled him so to blacken a public grief as to give it the aspect of a national crime.”

There’s been much talk recently of Australia “appointing” its own poet laureate. Given the ongoing constitutional connection with the Queen of Great Britain, one might even ask if the British are going to time-share their recent appointment, Andrew Motion. This hasn’t been seriously suggested – the idea is for Australia to have one of its own, appointed “officially”, selected by those who apparently know best. The Americans have their own version of a laureateship, but the position is temporary (the British version is for life), and the prospect of variety one of its advertising points. Rita Dove is a very different poet, with different public projects, from the incumbent Robert Pinsky, for example. This national character-building, this cultural advertising, is reinforced by the institutional support of the august Library of Congress. So the role is about an individual, but that individual is just a temporary face of something greater than its component parts – the United States of America.

So where does the idea for an Australian poet laureateship stem from? A desire to consolidate Australian cultural consciousness – a type of nationalistic reassurance? Or maybe Australia is looking to the international cultural market-place – another stunt, another manoeuvre in the international Australian advertising campaign that has at its head OlympicsAustralia.Com? Or is it a reward, something far more personal? There’s little doubt that Les Murray would be the first appointment, and political differences aside, few would argue against his deserving such a position, should it be established. My argument isn’t with Les, but with the need for the position in the first place.

It’s worth noting that when the search for a British poet laureate was on, there were whispers – no, shouts – that the next instalment should be either a woman, a minority representative, or a poet of the Commonwealth. Oh, there was Ireland as well. How about Seamus Heaney? No, Seamus told them clearly – though politely – that he wasn’t available.

Ireland doesn’t pay homage to the Queen of Great Britain! No chance of another Act of Union there. Of course, any choice made by a government-appointed panel of advisors would have to get the Queen’s approval (after all, it’s her show), so that left only the Commonwealth as a possible extra-terrestrial recruiting ground. Les Murray, or Derek Walcott? After some delay, both poets announced they were unavailable. Whether they really had a chance is open to conjecture, but the idea was seriously suggested. The People of the United Kingdom might well have feared a reverse colonisation.

So, back to the internal concerns of ethnicity, gender (there has never been a woman laureate), and politics. Tony Harrison recoiled at the idea of his being appointed and wrote a bitter, if not very good, attack on the whole idea. His recent book, Laureate’s Block and other poems, carries this attack, which falls between the planks as disingenuous in its efforts to imply that he’s the real people’s laureate anyway, and that his good republican credentials would never have him sink so low.

The potential role of government in any Australian appointment is of particular concern. Whether the position is mediated via a government agency, or through some other body that functions with government funding, the question of appropriateness, influence, and purpose, come into question. So, pay-off time, or is some more altruistic motive at work? Even if those supporting this notion see it as a way of encouraging poetry in the community, shouldn’t they question the inevitable creation of hierarchies that follows such a privileging action?

One can’t help connecting Australia’s failure to take a step into a more positive history in its failure to shed constitutional ties with the Crown, with the backroom moves to establish a post of Australian Poet Laureate. The need to identify “authority”, to gain the cultural assurance of the State’s imprimatur, is a sad sign of a period in Australian politics where an ignorance of what constitutes a national literature, and what its implications are, lies buried beneath official posturing. To create such a position, especially in a climate such as this, says more about identity crisis and the need to create nationalist placebos, than it does about any respect for poetry and its significance. To create poetry of commemoration, of the public occasion, is to reinforce the notion of State – even on those rare and bold occasions when such poetry bites the hand that feeds it. It most often creates an environment of reaction, leads to the preservation of the status quo, and marginalises other poetries and cultures that don’t fit the party line.

Having said this, I’m not suggesting that a poet shouldn’t be given laurels, or should avoid dedications, commemorations, or celebrations. Sometimes they have a positive political effect, especially in declaring the presence of an oppressed group, or of working within the zeitgeist of a community. There’s a plethora of unofficial and self-proclaimed poet laureateships out there – from MTV laureates, to the rapidly appearing laureates of cyberpsace, and any subcultural group you can think of. To define a subcultural laureate, is of course, to work against authority. To undermine the official model. But also to share vicariously in its authority – particularly in a commercial set-up such as MTV (a contrived “subculture”).

Campaigns to focus international attention on a specific country’s needs, or to celebrate the triumph of poetry over racial and cultural disparity, might be positive. New Zealand has a quasi-official laureateship – the Te Mata Estate New Zealand Poet Laureate. Te Mata Estate is a wine company. The Nelson Evening Mail reported after the appointment of the Maori poet Hone Tuwhare, that the “. . . award is made every two years to someone who has made a significant contribution to New Zealand poetry and carries with it a grant of funds and allocation of wine from the century-old winery, in keeping with the traditional award of wine to a British poet laureate.” While valuing the appointment of Hone Tuwhare, I have my doubts about the usefulness of imitating British practice. It sends strange signals of validation. Private industry connecting with an “official” historical culture. The political signals can be contradictory.

More often than not, however, national laureateship appointments highlight a failure to address the needs of different communities. This isn’t about poetry of the self, but poetry of the public occasion. The international laureate, say in the case of the Nobel Prize, despite the obvious politics of canvassing and utopianism, the questions relating to criteria and nomination and elites, can be affirming of a general humanity, that lifts out of nationalistic dead-ends. The choice is an external one, and that helps. Cultures can so easily replicate themselves without critiquing their problems. A look at the history of the British laureateship is a case in point. There have been fine poets, there have been second-rate ones. Regardless, the problems remain the same – the voice becomes attached to a power that has no real interest in the individual, despite the advertising. What, indeed, does the position mean?

The British laureateship carries with it the expectation to compose poems for Royal occasions such as births, marriages, and funerals. Other occasions of national significance are also open to versifying. It was made official in 1668 when John Dryden was appointed, but Ben Jonson was actually the first laureate in 1616. Some decidedly forgettable poets have held the post – including Eusden, Pye, and Warton. Ted Hughes’s seeming “disdain” for writing official celebratory verse probably did it more good than harm. He brought to it the authenticity of a real poet after some fairly lightweight appointments last century. As for the one hundred pounds a year and being made a member of the royal household, I’m sure such privileges had little influence on his verse.

It should be recognised, however, that for all its regal trappings and antiquated attachments, the British laureateship is not, in some senses, as plugged into officialdom as the US version (where many states in fact have their own “laureates” there’s a pecking order, one surmises, relevant to the size and influence of the state in question). The Library of Congress administers the office of laureate, and a check on the web soon reveals that it’s really plugged in.

The idea of the web as democracy, as the people’s medium, is big. Robert Pinsky reels out the poems celebrating fathers and baseball players, and runs a massive project of people recording their favourite poems. To bring a focus on poetry on this scale is admirable, so there’s an extremely positive side to it. But the rhetoric behind the appointment shows the problem: were Pinsky recommending dysfunctional families and anarchism, I doubt he’d have retained his position for as long as he has. That’s not to say people have been appointed for writing sanitised verse. Rita Dove, author of some strong “political” poetry, held the position for a year. But it’s what’s said during the incumbency, and there are some things one can now say, and others one can’t.

So, which way to go? The end result seems depressingly the same – one or many faces, it’s still a nationalist agenda (or royal) that’s being pushed. Any official appointment, be it by a government organisation or some semi-autonomous body speaking for “the Australian people”, is going to be tainted.

Maybe we should have a referendum? one might cyncially suggest. Then it becomes a question of which questions you ask, how you present them, and the fact that most people would avoid the issue of they could legally do so. To understand Australian poetry, you need to read work by its own poets – whatever their background – and look outside the country as well. The laureateship concept comes out of a desire to create a definitive line of inheritance in Australian writing – to create a canon. I would hope that Australia is confident enough in its literature(s) to avoid such tags of legitimacy. Though, should a laureateship be established, I’m sure poets will be lining up to fill the position.