A Poet Laureate for Australia

In a major piece in "The Australian" newspaper on the weekend, Perth based writer and critic Richard King discusses the possibility of Australia appointing a poet laureate. The basic question is: Britain and the USA both have one, so why not us?

It is a reasonable question, which I, in typical fashion, scoffed at immediately. What possible use could one be, I thought? Which then raised the supplementary question: what do they actually do, anyway? To which I can safely answer that I do not have the faintest idea.

So it was off to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poet_laureate that I went and obtained the following definition: "A Poet Laureate is a poet officially appointed by a government and often expected to compose poems for state occasions and other government events. The term has in England for centuries been the title of the official poet of the monarch, appointed for life since the time of Charles II. Poets Laureate are appointed by many countries, some U.S. states and the UN."

So the Poet Laureate is a government appointment whose particular task is, to quote the current British incumbent: "..to write poems on royal and national events". But even he then went on to question how this could be done by one person in such a multicultural society as Britain's. What we tend to end up with are ugly poems that no-one is particularly interested in. Which brings to mind the reaction to the poem the then Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, wrote about the wedding of Lady Diana Spencer and the Prince of Wales. I think "vitriolic" might not be too harsh a word for the criticism it received. Though to be fair, this may well have been directed mainly at Hughes rather than the quality of his poetry.

It might be argued that C.J. Dennis, in his role as resident poet for the Melbourne "Herald" in the 1920s and 1930s, was as close an example of an Australian Poet Laureate as we have had. Each year during his tenure, he wrote poems commemorating such events as Anzac Day and Remembrance Day; events that most Australians would consider worthy of some sort of decent poetry. But it has also to be remembered that he wrote poems about the Melbourne Cup, the start of the football season and the results of cricket test matches. He wrote about politicians and grocers, country doctors and country pubs, city trams and local trains, trees and birds, gardens and monuments - basically the whole gamut of life as he saw it.

It is impossible to say how popular his verse was at the time it was written. I suppose the fact that he continued to be published for as long as he did gives as good an indication as any of his standing among the paper's readership.

I doubt that Dennis ever saw his role as one concerned with the promotion of poetry as an acceptable artform. He came from a humble background that viewed poetry as part and parcel of an everyday reading life, not as some sort of pretentious nonsense.

In general I'm not a big fan of modern poetry. I don't find it says anything to me that has an impact. There are some that I enjoy (David Rowbotham, Dorothy Porter and Les Murray spring to mind) but the list is short. And yet I put it to you that there are a couple of "poets" working in Australia right now who might be considered to have taken on some of Dennis's mantle: I'm thinking of Michael Leunig and singer-songwriter Paul Kelly. If we are going to appoint a Poet Laureate for Australia I'd certainly like to see either of them being considered for the role. But if we are going to appoint someone whose brief has them writing poems to commemorate the opening of Parliament or the Queen's birthday, then I think we should give the whole idea the flick.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on July 26, 2006 11:47 AM.

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