It’s happened at last. After 400 years, Britain has finally chosen a female Poet Laureate!
Before you blokes stop reading, muttering to yourselves about “bloody feminists” (and yes, I do know what I just said), let me put it into perspective for you. And I promise that this will be the only feminist rant in this post.
- On the average Creative Writing Course, women usually make up at least two-thirds of the numbers. (On the Glamorgan MPhil for example, of the eight students in each cohort, the year before mine had only one bloke, as did my year, and the year immediately after had two. Same applies for the courses I’ve taught at CPIT.)
- Similar proportions occur at most poetry readings – two-thirds to three-quarters of the people in the audience will be female. (Check for yourself.)
- And again, the same proportions apply to the poetry submissions sent to magazines and competitions – two-thirds to three-quarters of the hopeful poets are … female.
Yet if you look at the list of names that hold the positions of authority in the English-speaking poetry world, they are vastly biased towards those who have penises. Check for yourself – editors at the high profile, high prestige poetry publishers; editors of the similarly prestigious literary journals; the Professors of Poetry etc. I’m not alleging any sort of conspiracy here, but surely it’s time people started asking why there are so few female poets in those roles? It’s not as though there aren’t any really talented and/or popular female poets writing these days!
But you do still hear people (and again, this is largely those of the masculine persuasion) making comments along the lines of “oh, she’s a good female poet”, with the adjective “female” being used as some sort of synonym for “second-rate”. A New Zealand poet (who I otherwise get on well enough with) once said to me that he “just couldn’t understand women’s poetry”, in the faux-apologetic-but-actually-quite-smug tone of voice that you might otherwise use to say that you didn’t watch daytime television. Turn the statement around. How much credibility would I still have if I said that I didn’t/couldn’t understand men’s poetry?
Ok, end of rant. It’s wonderful that, at last, a female poet has been selected as Poet Laureate. Even better that it is a poet of the calibre of Carol Ann Duffy.
I know quite a few people believe that the Laureateship is the kiss of death for a poet’s talent – certainly Andrew Motion struggled to write well during his tenure. (Although his poems on the deaths of the princesses Diana and Margaret were fabulous.) But as Duffy said herself, the office is about more than just poems for public occasions. Andrew Motion’s greatest success is probably the creation of the Poetry Archive, and it’s doubtful if that would have been able to go ahead without the gravitas of the role behind him. As Duffy herself has said,
The laureateship shines a light not on one poet, but on many… Someone, however, one of the tribe, has to tend the flame.
I met her once. I was just one of many people who lined up in the Ilkley Winter Garden foyer to have their books signed, after hearing her read. I think I mentioned that I was one of Gillian Clarke’s Glamorgan students. I do remember that she looked up at me, nodded at the book, and asked very directly, “what did you think of it?” I’m sure it was just one of a dozen or so questions that she regularly rotated through on such occasions, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt the way her best poems do – a direct, unflinching, personal address. Poet to reader, no bullshit, bypassing the usual polite inanities. Real. What poetry should be.
Go well, Carol Ann. Stoke the flame high.
From The Guardian Online:
- Talking to Rachel Cooke, the reassuring news that she believes her best is yet to be written;
- Carol Rumens, arguing that “Carol Ann Duffy’s talent is more important than her gender” (amen to that!)