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Thursday, November 27, 2008
Poetry and children

The position of Poet Laureate becomes vacant in May and, after a moment or two of soul-searching, I have decided not to apply. To those among my reader (sic) who may feel that my serious – if brief - contemplation smacks of excessive earnestness, I can only say 'keep reading'.

In a delightful consideration of several possible candidates, Mark Lawson writes in the Guardian
Sweating slightly under television lights, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Wendy Cope and Pam Ayres perform in turn a new sonnet while wearing T-shirts printed with the phone number we dial to vote for them. Raising with a flourish a card marked with the figure 4, Andrew Motion, the chief judge, has to raise his voice above the booing of the studio audience as he drawls: "Your second sestina last week was magic, Seamus. But though you won the Nobel, your sonnet rang no bells with me!"

This, in an era when senior ministers comment publicly on the results of Strictly Come Dancing, might be the most suitably modern way in which to choose a new poet laureate to follow Motion, who retires in May. The government, however, has made clear that there will be no Strictly Rhyme Scheming or The A-B-A-B Factor on television - though public comments will be welcomed as part of a process of consultation before suggestions go to the Queen.

Another obstacle to the above fantasy is the range of candidates. Cope and Heaney have ruled themselves out, while Walcott, though indicating that he would accept, lives mainly in the Caribbean and would struggle to undertake the educational tasks Motion has made part of the job. Among leading poets who do live here, James Fenton and Tony Harrison have crossed their names off the ballot.

Such refusals are common. Philip Larkin said no before Ted Hughes got it. Larkin had many reasons to dislike the idea of being national bard.
Oh to have someone of Larkin's 'character' among the candidates! I still remember thrilling to hearing one of Larkin's best know poems - 'This be the verse' - for the first time, recited by my son
They f*** you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
You can read the full, unexpurgated version here. En passant, I think it would also be nice to consider the perceptive soul who wrote
An author had an asterisk;
He kept it in his den
Where he wrote tales
That had large sales
Of erring maids, and men.
And when he reached the passages
Where carping censors lurk,
He called upon the asterisk
To do his dirty work.
as a candidate. Mind you, when I think about it, I'm not quite sure how useful an asterisk might be in the bedroom; a bit like toast-crumbs, I'd have thought.

So who might we choose? Given Larkin's non-availability – he's dead - how about Roger McGough? Here's some of his work, very definitely in Larkin's vein. It's called 'Pay-back time'
O Lord, let me be a burden on my children
For long they've been a burden upon me.
May they fetch and carry, clean and scrub
And do so cheerfully.

Let them take it in turns at putting me up
Nice sunny rooms at the top of the stairs
With a walk-in bath and lift installed
At great expense.....Theirs.
The poem concludes
It's been a blessing watching them develop
The parental pride we felt as each one grew.
But Lord, let me be a burden on my children
And on my children's children too.
You can read the full version here, at the bottom of the web page.

I write without apprehension; it's unlikely that my children will read this, so I'll make a point of emailing it to them. I want them to read it. I want to make sure the whippersnappers, and their children, have enough money saved up for when I need my Stannah stairlifts in all their houses - in sixty years or so.

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