Saturday, 2 May 2009

The Poet Lesbian

So, we have a new Poet Laureate in Britain. It's an odd role. You're supposed to be the official poetic voice of the nation. Traditionally the job description includes poets for state occasions like royal weddings and coronations. More traditionally, the job is usually held by a straight white male.
When Ted Hughes - who held the post for a few years and incidentally, was the-crappest speaker and performance poet I have ever seen - died, there were a lot of problems filling the post. Any poet who was any good, (e.g. Seamus Heaney, Carol Ann Duffy) wouldn't touch it because of the restrictions on their style. In the end it went to Andrew Motion, a poet who is willing to write to order but, frankly, writes verse that provides a perfect opportunity to use the word anodyne. He was commissioned to write a poem which would then be printed on the side of one of Sheffield universities. As my friend Graeme put it "I resent the time that stopping to read it took out of my life." Now, however, he (Motion, not Graeme) has thrown in the slightly limp towel and resigned from the post. The new PL is... Carol Ann Duffy. Apparently The Establishment decided that giving the Poet Laureate more freedom would result in.... better poems, and removed the 'obligatory fawning poem about the baby prince's first spit-up' clause. Duffy, after being approached again with the more relaxed terms of employment, took the post on the advice of her 13 year old daughter, who pointed out that she would be the first woman to hold the post.
And that's what the headlines are saying. First Woman Poet, First Northern Poet, First Scottish Poet (Techincally she IS Glaswegian, but is more obviously a Manchester poet than anything else). But so far only the international and gay press have stated what is, to me, the biggest milestone: Carol Ann Duffy is openly gay. Woman's Hour on Radio 4 interviewed the poet, about her perspective as a woman writer, with an emphasis on motherhood. Duffy mentioned winning a women's poetry contest in the 80s and being shocked to hear herself referred to as a "poetess". The weird quaintness of this word does imply the idea of a sweet amateur writing rhymes about buttercups, kittens and unrequited love. I can see why she doesn't like it. But is the wholesale avoidance by the British press of the words 'gay' and 'lesbian' an attempt to encourage the public to see her as 'just a poet' (in which case why on all the focus on her gender and nationality)
Or do they just not want to frighten the horses?
Some of Duffy's most famous works deal with sexuality. Warming Her Pearls, The Laughter of Stafford Girls High, From Mrs Tiresias... All received huge acclaim and are full of female, lesbian sensuality. In her new role, will she be forced to write 'straight'?
And if she doesn't, will everyone just pretend it's not happening?


  1. Hmm. Interesting stuff. I imagine there's a lot of pressure when you are the "first" of anything.

  2. WHAT?! *harumph* A lesbianist as Poet Laureate? By Jove! Those people get everywhere nowadays. I tell you, it wouldn't have happened in my day. *harumph* I must write to The Times.