Will anyone bet on me?

Fiona Pitt-Kethley for Poet Laureate

The search to find the new poet laureate for when Carol Ann Duffy stands down next year is hotting up. In the past some poets have been reluctant to assume the role. Everything from mock modesty to anti-monarchic feeling has been used as a reason to say no.

The job used to be for life but is now limited to ten years. The royal poems of the last two laureates may not have been their greatest work, but they did some good other things. Andrew Motion was involved in starting the Poetry Archive with its recordings of poets reading their work. I applaud this even though they haven’t included me yet. And Duffy gave up her laureate’s salary to fund the Ted Hughes Award.

Simon Armitage, who sounds as if he wants the job, to judge by a recent piece in the Guardian, decreed among other things that a poet laureate should have read Beowulf and the Iliad. Yes, I have read both. Beowulf in the original, one book of the Iliad in the original and the whole in several different translations. I prefer the Iliad. From my part-Welsh point of view Beowulf is not as good as the old Welsh epics, and has a much smaller vocabulary.

I would like to advance some arguments for my own suitability for the job. A great many of my early poems related to history, though I am not known in general for this part of my output. This work is now available as part of my Collected Poems and in Kindle and short paperback versions. It isn’t the poetry most people know me by, but it has its own merit which is why I kept it. How many of the other possible candidates have anything similar in their repertoire?

I have written a great many light verse poems and turned out many winning entries for Spectator competitions: heroic couplets, sonnets etc. It might be a good idea to treat royal events in this style as older laureates did. The moderner laureates didn’t take this option but perhaps should have done.

I was still living in England when Motion got the job. I am now in Spain. But should that really be an objection? I could still get to London quicker on a cheap flight than many poets living in distant parts of the United Kingdom. Perfectly possible to go over for a few readings a month. The rest could be done by email.

Twenty years ago, I was asked to contribute a poem on the laureateship and why I would like it. I concentrated on the well-known alcoholic perk and called it ‘I Could Use a Butt of Canary’. It was published in the Observer, I think. I was not thought a possible candidate by the media back then, or indeed now.

What exactly goes into the choosing of a laureate? Duffy was probably chosen in part because it was felt there should be a woman in the role, sooner or later. Women are, after all, roughly half the population. Perhaps there will be a decision to opt for a BAME writer this time round. Whoever it is, it is likely that some measure of political correctness will enter into the choice made.

The modern world requires different tasks from its laureates and is rather embarrassed by the royal poem bit. If I were lucky enough to get the job, what would my contribution be? I am in no financial position to give up the salary as Duffy did, but I would be keen to do something for poetry and poets in general. My professional writing started c. 1978 although I was not really known till the mid-1980s. Since then, I have seen the poetry world decline in many ways and that is sad. Several good and influential poetry lists have died in the last three decades. That of Oxford University Press, for instance. If I were in a position of power I would like to start talking to the bigger publishers and suggest it was time to start new ones. They would probably say that poetry doesn’t sell. I would point out that it could if they promoted it properly. I sold well back at the time Sky Ray Lolly was published. It is time for some new lists, not the old closed ones, and lots of promotion to bring poetry back into the news. It could be done, but it would take faith and money.

Will I make the short list? Will I be a 100 to 1 dark horse in the race? Will anyone bet on me? Time will tell.


  • 6 November 2018 at 5:31pm
    Audrey Ogilvie says:
    Fiona, I will go out on a limb and say that you appear to have more than the necessary qualifications needed by a poet laureate. That you would like to help bring poetry back, full-throttle, into the literary world is a superb notion. As a possible dark horse, here's to you riding proudly into the sunshine.

  • 7 November 2018 at 4:58pm
    UncleShoutingSmut says:
    You consider that flying back and forth from Spain on a monthly basis compares favorably to getting the train from, say, Inverness. Sure, if you are looking at it, as you are, in terms of cost and time. However the carbon footprint engendered by such monthly jaunts paints a less alluring picture. An economy seat on a one-way Madrid Barajas-Heathrow flight emits 0.21 tonnes of CO2 equivalent, according to Multiplying this by 24 gives 5.04 tonnes. According to a recent calculation by Helen Breewood* in order to have a 66% chance of staying below 2° of warming and avoiding catastrophic consequences for poorer and future populations, the fair amount of CO2 equivalent each human may emit yearly is 1.02 tonnes. Current research suggests the danger level is more like 1.5°, and a one in three chance of cataclysm sounds like an extremely unhedged bet. All of which suggests the required figure is even lower. So, on the basis of this I’m afraid I won’t be able to support your bid for the laureateship, for what it’s worth.


  • 7 November 2018 at 5:15pm
    UncleShoutingSmut says:
    For "1.02 tonnes" read "1.2 tonnes", apologies.

    • 7 November 2018 at 7:08pm
      Fiona Pitt-Kethley says: @ UncleShoutingSmut
      Do you really think that the other poets being touted for this job don´t fly anywhere?

    • 8 November 2018 at 12:40pm
      UncleShoutingSmut says: @ Fiona Pitt-Kethley
      Thanks for your reply, but you are reframing my remark. I simply observed that as you set things out, your being elected poet laureate involved the production of 5 tonnes of C02 equivalent, and indicated why I thought that was problematic in ecological terms. What other poets, or indeed anyone else at all, does, is immaterial, and certainly doesn't constitute a justification.

  • 8 November 2018 at 3:16am
    Higgs Boatswain says:
    I'm trying to think how many poets laureate have actually been - you know - any good. With a few exceptions (Hughes, Dryden, maybe Tennyson on a good day) the job has generally gone to the forgettable lesser-lights of their age. Who now remembers the works of Nahum Tate (laureate 1692-1715) or Henry James Pye (1790-1813) or Alfred Austin (1896-1913)? Even good poets only seem to get the top job once they're no longer writing anything of merit: Wordsworth (1843-50) never wrote anything during his laureateship half as good as Browning's excoriating "The Lost Leader." Robert Bridges (1913-30) is now remembered only as the posthumous editor of the work of his friend Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Colley Cibber (1730-57) matters to posterity only because he is the chief target of Pope's magnificent Dunciad. These men are footnotes in the history of English letters.

    With two-and-a-half exceptions, the laureate has for 350 years been an award for literary mediocrity, a miserable mirror of what princes and prime ministers imagine good and politically-useful poetry to be. I can't imagine why any self-respecting poet of any talent at all would ever seek the job. In short, Simon Armitage would be an excellent candidate and I sincerely hope he gets it. But you should set your ambitions a wee bit higher, Fiona. Don't sell your soul for a butt of canary wine - or even for a riband to stick in your coat.

  • 8 November 2018 at 1:13pm
    Simon Wood says:
    Colley Cibber's foppery and foolery were a commercial success in his day especially on stage - he was a spoken word performer before his time, something of a stand-up. I'm very fond of his gag-like epithets like the pertinent:

    "He who seeks to be a man of letters
    Always ends up in their fetters."

    Fiona Pitt-kethley would be a radical move away from the homegrown scene at the moment, having vast knowledge of publishing, both books and magazines, before relocating to Spain - increasingly a necessity for writers of all kinds, to escape expensive, corporate Britain.

    Loads of poets made a similar move to Europe - Keats, Byron, Browning, notably Robert Graves. An inward-looking post-Brexit Britain could well profit from such a cooler, and sunnier, outlook.

    • 9 November 2018 at 2:37pm
      Audrey Ogilvie says: @ Simon Wood
      Hear hear, Simon Woods. Your case is beautifully made. I especially like your positing that the collective post-navel gazing Brexit Britain stands to benefit from the perspective of a native who has the added advantage that comes with the additional layer of distance and interpretation.

  • 9 November 2018 at 9:05am
    JWA says:
    So farewell then!
    Carol Ann Duffy
    spiky haired GCSE-holdfast Queen!
    of the Queen's poetry!
    now you can sit at home under your duvet
    drink cocoa and think of Kingsley
    and never be obliged to write about a poppy
    or a PFI infrastructure opening ceremony
    or talk to 15 year olds every other day
    and damn it, I'm thinking of Wendy.
    BTW Theresa I'm also available
    Pick me.

    EJ Thribb 17 1/2

  • 11 November 2018 at 8:09am
    Nicholas Murray says:
    So we’re all agreed, it’s Fiona then. I am of course biassed as her most recent publisher [smashing little pamphlet, “Mineral Adventures” (Rack Press)] but can I suggest that in future the role is recast as “National Poet” i.e. no odes on multiple royal parturitions but poems on big national, public events. Also, it doesn’t matter which language you read Beowulf in, it does matter if you don’t have the technical skill to write a good public poem.

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