Wanted: a fish-and-chips poet for Britain

The hunt is on for Britain's next poet laureate: a man or woman - so far it's been a male preserve - to produce verse for state occasions.

Dozens of poets are keen to take the place of Ted Hughes, who died in October. The one Queen Elizabeth II chooses will work within a tradition going back to 1670, when John Dryden was handed the job by King Charles II. The job pays 200 ($335) a year.

If Prime Minister Tony Blair has a say (and as the queen's chief adviser he will), the laureate will be less a monarch's personal versifier and more a poet of the people.

Growing interest in poetry is one reason the quest for a new laureate is stirring controversy. Poetry, far from being elitist, has begun to reach audiences in factories, subways, soccer clubs - and even fish-and-chips shops.

A Guardian newspaper poll last month found Beatle lyricist Paul McCartney was the public's top pick.

But Mr. Blair's office gave the idea a thumbs-down, noting that, for one thing, the ex-Beatle had never published any poetry.

The prime minister, even so, is adamant that the next laureate should be able to write verse that communicates to a wide public.

Others so far mentioned as possible contenders include Wendy Cope, 1995 winner of the American Academy of Literature's Michael Braude award for light verse, and Nobel Prize in Literature winner Seamus Heaney. As an Irishman, however, Mr. Heaney seems unlikely to get the royal nod.

Unwilling to be laureate

In addition, not everyone is eager for the post. Many present-day poets are unenthusiastic about the monarchy and therefore would probably shun the honor of writing verse for royal occasions. Poet Craig Raine, a friend of Ted Hughes, calls the prestige of being poet laureate "out-of-date, like the buckles on a Cavalier's shoes."

One illustrious occupant of the post was Alfred Lord Tennyson, a favorite of Queen Victoria, who held the office for a record 42 years. Poetry as a popular medium enjoyed a great vogue in the Victorian era. But, but according to Chris Mead, president of Britain's Poetry Society, "for most of this century it has lacked mass appeal."

Now the society is leading a campaign to persuade people, Mr. Mead says, that "poets and poetry have something to say to everybody." With a 450,000 ($750,000) grant from the National Lottery, it has launched a Poetry Places program that aims to install 100 resident poets in businesses and schools around the nation.

Under the scheme, staff at Marks & Spencer, a leading department store chain, this year have been getting visits from poet-in-residence Peter Sansom. His poetry workshops have attracted large numbers of shop-floor workers.

Mr. Sansom describes his own work as "post-modern and eloquently conversational."

"At first some staff were less than enthusiastic," he says. "But it didn't take long to win them over. I hope the exercise will ultimately encourage people to read poems as well as write them, and to read in a more focused and whole-hearted way."

Poetry made another breakthrough earlier this year at the London law firm of Mishcon de Reya, which represented Diana, Princess of Wales, in her divorce proceedings.

Lavinia Greenlaw, an established poet was invited to write her verses directly into the firm's computer system. Ms. Greenlaw says: "Poets and lawyers both use language in very exacting ways. It has been instructive to compare the differences. We have been learning from each other."

Other organizations that have appointed poets-in-residence in the past few months include the British Broadcasting Corporation, which asked Afro-Caribbean poet John Agard to write about the black experience in Britain; the London Zoo, where Tobias Hill plans to join animals in their cages and write poems about them; Kew Gardens; Barnsley Football (soccer) Club; and a fish-and-chips shop in Wigan, Lancashire.

Unlike the United States, where the post of national laureate stays with the holder of the poetry chair at the Library of Congress for only a year or two, the appointment in Britain is traditionally for life.

Dryden was followed by a series of lesser poets, and it wasn't until a century later that the great William Wordsworth accepted the post and ended a long period of mediocrity

A limited term as in America?

Blair reportedly is considering appointing the next laureate for a fixed term in an effort to make the post less burdensome. Observer newspaper columnist Nigella Lawson noted in November: "I don't think any of us, poets or not, believe that great poetry can be produced on demand."

Apart from the Poetry Society's in-house residency scheme, there are signs that the British public is becoming more discriminating in its attitude to verse.

The BBC broadcasts a weekly nationwide request program called Poetry Please! And for the past 12 years, travelers on the London Tube have read verse displayed on the walls of subway cars.

An anthology from the Poems on the Underground project, updated every year, has so far sold more than 200,000 copies, which suggests that today's British public may be well placed to tell a good laureate from a poor one.

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