Wanted: chief poet for England. $135 a year stipend

In an age of instant news, the need for formal poetry to mark great state occasions may not seem pressing. But the British, who are ever ready to doff their hats to tradition, do not see things that way.

The search is on for a new poet laureate to replace Sir John Betjeman, who passed on last week after 12 years in a post that made him chief versifier of the realm, and earned him the less than princely stipend of (STR)97 ($135) a year.

Britain has had a poet laureate since King James I appointed Ben Johnson to the job in 1617. His task is to render in verse the nation's feelings on occasions of great joy or sadness.

Mr. Betjeman, a patriot with a passion for Victorian architecture and the touch of a popular poet, took over the post from Cecil Day-Lewis.

By general consent among fellow poets, he failed to produce laureate verse of distinction, even when royal babies were born.

But the British contrived to love him still, and were in any case able to delve through his earlier works, including a verse autobiography, ''Summoned by Bells,'' which was widely acclaimed as a minor masterpiece.

Though no race is on to be the next poet to hold a job occupied in the past by such literary luminaries as Thomas Dryden, William Wordsworth, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and John Masefield, a keen contest is getting under way.

The favorite is Philip Larkin, who is regarded by most of his peers as the best living British poet.

Mr. Larkin, however, has not produced a volume of verse in the past 10 years.

His production rate is said to be two poems every 12 months. Even a poet laureate should be able to do better than that.

The Queen appoints the laureate on the advice of the prime minister, and the appointee ranks as a royal courtier.

One possibility is that the Queen, in company with a woman prime minister, might decide to make history and appoint a woman poet.

Buckingham Palace has already sent the word out to the Poetry Society and the Arts Council to come up with names.

There is no chance of a pay raise for the next laureate. The emolument has not been increased since Tennyson took the job 134 years ago.

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