John Horder on
Carol Ann Duffy's ascension to the Laureateship
the late U.A. Farnthorpe's very different ascension
and the Children's Laureateship
Boat-Rocking First Woman Poet Laureate and Her Warrior Friend U.A.
Amongst all the hundreds of column inches welcoming Carol Ann Duffy as the first woman poet laureate, nobody has mentioned the large part Ted Hughes played when he so cannily invented the Children's Laureateship. If ever a poet knew which way the wind of the zeitgeist was blowing in pre-Harry Potter days, it was Ted.
Most literary pundits and big wigs neglected to mention that his children's books such as The Dreamfighter and Other Creation Tales about the whale which grew up in God's garden besides the carrots, and King Leo who began life because God was hungry for his sausages, are just as imaginatively as potent anything else he wrote.
Michael Morpurgo called them "Fantastical, fun, yet ringing with truth, these are spellbinding, elemental tales from the greatest storyteller of our time", to be read aloud to children from four to ninety-four.
As Michael Rosen has commented recently, the children's laureateship's enormous success is due to the children's laureates being so much better known to Joe Public than Andrew Motion was when he first succeeded Ted Hughes. They include Quentin Blake, the only illustrator so far to be appointed, Jacqueline Wilson, Michael Morpurgo, who wrote the wondrous play War Horse, recently transferred from the National to the West End, and Michael Rosen, whose three year stint has also involved his giving of his very best, and shortly ends.
It's success is also due to its tenure being for such a short time. Michael Rosen's successor is due at the beginning of June, and, unlike with Carol Ann's appointment, nobody has the least idea idea who it will be. Shirley Hughes, the popular writer and illustrator, is unlikely to get it because she is too old to scuttle round the country speaking of the joys of reading.
How did all these considerations help make Carol Ann into our first much longed for woman poet laureate? The simple home truth was that the Prime Minister's Appointments Secretary could not afford to recommend a man poet not all that well known to J Public like Simon Armitage, at a time when the post had rightly been called "archaic" by the other favourite woman candidate, Wendy Cope.
Unlike ten years ago, Carol Ann's being lesbian, in 2009 made her irresistible to the P.M.'s Appointment Secretary. This only goes to show that Middle England is rightly no longer taken into account in any of his deliberations.
There is something irresistible about Carol Ann's latest book of love poems Rapture (Picador). It represented a dazzling change of gear from the more mischief-making The World's Wife (Picador) to start its tour as a one-woman show at Edinburgh three months from now.
Carol Ann's accessibility to thousands of young people, who normally wouldn't be seen dead on bus, tube or the lavatory reading any book of poems, can be seen in the first stanza of the title poem of her first book, Standing Female Nude (Anvil Press, 1985). Its trick has a genius-like simplicity. It takes the reader off her or his guard with a panache that thrills:
Six hours like this for a few francs.
Belly nipple arse in the window light,
he drains the colour from me. Further to the right,
Madame. And do try to be still.
I shall be represented analytically and hung
in great museums. The bourgeoisie will coo
at such an image of a river-whore. They call it Art.
Carol Ann Duffy
There are strong shades here of her living with Adrian Henri, the poet and painter, in Liverpool in the sixties. Carol Ann wrote the heartfelt poem 'Premonitions' about her close friend the poet U.A. Fanthorpe shortly after she heard of her death aged 79 last week.
Both she and U.A. are poets who have constantly amazed themselves in everything they have ever written all their lives. But not ever for politically correct machinations. They have worked too hard at their craft for too long, are too compassionate and forgiving of selves, and shoot too often from the hip to fall into that lethal trap.
Women poets can support one another to the hilt through life and death in ways unimaginable to most emotionally illiterate and unhugged men poets. That is Carol Ann and U.A.'s message to all of us in this chronically touch-deprived world.
John Horder © world copyright 2009