Much as I would like to be able to say that “I met the Poet Laureate last weekend”, it would be a slight embroidering of the truth. Better to say that I was in the presence of the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, at the Wilfred Owen Association’s Shrewsbury event. The only words she said to me were: “Are we having coffee here or in the other room?” Nevertheless, it was a privilege to hear her recite a sample of her work, and she certainly showed why she is a worthy winner of the 2016 Wilfred Owen Poetry Prize.
Carol Ann Duffy is, as I’m sure all readers know, the first woman to hold the position of Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom. Coincidentally, the “Makar” or National Poet of Scotland is also a woman, Jackie Kay, and the position of National Poet of Wales has just been vacated by another prominent female poet, Gillian Clarke. Wales perhaps has an alternative national poet, in the form of the Archdruid; the person who presides over the National Eisteddfod must be a former winner of the Chair or the Crown, the two premier Welsh-language poetry competitions. The Archdruid who vacated the position in 2016 is another woman, Christine James; she was also the first female to hold the title.
It was in fact not until 1953 that a woman won the Eisteddfod Crown, and - almost unbelievably - no woman had won the Chair before Mererid Hopwood’s victory in 2001. Since the eisteddfod competitors are known only by pseudonyms, there can be no suggestion of discrimination in the judging, and I am therefore forced to the conclusion that women were simply not entering these competitions in any numbers until the mid-twentieth century.
Looking back over the centuries, it is obvious that poetry, at least in the English-speaking world, has traditionally been a male occupation. Yes, there were female poets in ancient Greece, but it was men who wrote the epics and verse dramas that we think of as the masterpieces of early literature and it was men who roamed medieval Europe earning their living as poets at the courts of monarchs and nobles. Even in the nineteenth century, one would be hard pressed to name more than a handful of female poets who could rank alongside the Wordsworths, Brownings and Tennysons. It is hardly surprising that, for 400 years, the position of Poet Laureate was the exclusive preserve of the male gender.
Siegfried Sassoon was on friendly terms with two of the twentieth-century holders of the title. He was first introduced to Robert Bridges just after the First World War, when he visited the "Pantheon" of poets resident on Boar's Hill, just outside Oxford. At first they were not too keen on one another - Sassoon was displeased by Bridges' dismissive attitude to Thomas Hardy's poetry, while the elderly Bridges mistook him for a German and addressed him as "Siegfried Digweed". Bridges lived at Chilswell House, now a Carmelite priory and retreat centre, and the two men eventually reached a level of friendship where Sassoon was able to become an occasional lodger.
The role of the poet laureate in English and later British society is not one historically distinguished by great poetic talent. Early laureates did their duty by producing occasional odes and eulogies such as Thomas Shadwell's birthday odes to William and Mary. Shadwell had unseated his rival John Dryden as poet because of the latter's association with the deposed King James II/VII. Some of his successors took their roles more seriously than others. New depths of mediocrity were plumbed by Alfred Austin in his often-quoted 1871 poem "On the Illness of the Prince of Wales: "O'er the wires the electric message came/'He is no better; he is much the same."
On Bridges' death in 1930, his replacement was John Masefield, whose work Sassoon had parodied before the war but whom he had come to admire. Masefield was not the obvious candidate; Kipling was favoured by many, but the government favoured the younger Masefield. By the time Masefield vacated the position on his death in 1967, Siegfried Sassoon was eighty years old and seriously ill, only months from his own death.
Cecil Day-Lewis, editor of Wilfred Owen's poems and an aficionado of Thomas Hardy, was a choice of which Sassoon would have approved, although he held the position for only five years, succeeded on his death by Sir John Betjeman, a more conventional successor. One of Betjeman's first attempts at fulfilling the duties of the laureate's role was his poetic tribute on the occasion of Princess Anne's wedding in 1973. I recall my English teacher correctly predicting that "he'll come up with something", and I also remember the exact words with which she later described the offering: "A horrible bit of jingly-jangly nonsense". Betjeman got an equally bad press a few years later when he tried to write something to mark the Queen's Silver Jubilee. Thereafter, the post of Poet Laureate began to seem like an anachronism.
But in the 21st century, poetry is back in a big way. We owe this in no small measure to the interest stoked up by the approaching centenary of the First World War, bringing writers such as Owen, Sassoon, Graves and Rosenberg to the fore again. Poetry is once more becoming a pursuit for both genders, no longer regarded as something for cissies, and we have both male and female poets worthy of the name. Carol Ann Duffy, in her 2009 poem "Last Post", showed how a poet laureate can represent the feelings of a nation without being sycophantic or lowering her own creative standards. Now that she is more than halfway through her tenure of the post, we can only hope that her successor will prove equally deserving.