The recent reception for Contemporary British Poetry held at Buckingham Palace has caused a bit of a ‘ruption’ to some who have felt slighted at not having been invited. One poet and editor who has been particularly miffed has blogged that he missed out on ‘the highest honour a poet who is British could ever hope to achieve’!
This is a bizarre statement, to say the least, and not something I would expect from an editor whose day to day job must bring about an appreciation of the simple fact that every writer can’t be invited into the pages of every anthology, onto the stages of every festival, or to every party or reception held in honour of the craft they work in. All editors of anthologies and magazines, all organizers of festivals and readings, all curators of literature make difficult choices every day about who to include and what kinds of representation to achieve. The ‘unincluded’ and the ‘uninvited’ is the unfortunate category to which most writers belong to everyday and we might well be philosophical about the good company we keep there.
In any case, editors and event-organizers spend so much time selflessly making space for literature – for poetry – that writer and poets might at least try to put their feelings of entitlement to one side and give them a fucking break.
The uninvited felt that they had done enough for British Poetry, had achieved enough that they should have also ‘achieved’ an invitation, but as it turns out, the invite list wasn’t at all about what was *best* or who had achieved the most. It refused to enter that kind of conversation. Rather, it was about what was/is British Poetry. What does such a thing look like today? What are its complexions? What are its accents and even its languages? Can British poetry speak Urdu? What are its sexualities? Now, Carol-Ann Duffy could have well decided to invite only those poets who have won or been shortlisted for major British awards over the last 15 years – the TS Eliot, the Forward Prizes, the National Poetry Prize, the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, MBE and OBE holders etc, and their publishers of course. That would have been your guest list of 300 right there. It would have been the imagined inner circle of poetry brought into the inner circle of royalty. A traditionally in-crowd such as that would have been – not exclusively, but mostly old, mostly white, and mostly unrepresentative of the dynamic scene and spread of contemporary British Poetry. It would not have reached into the more interesting corners.
Can we therefore give credit (if not honour) where credit is due and say hats off to the poet laureate Carol-Ann Duffy who made sure the invite list was *not* that. It could have been but it wasn’t. Instead, for one night, she made much of the traditionally out-crowd, become the in-crowd. In Buckingham Palace there were spoken word poets, slam poets, poets in their 90s who could hardly manage the stairs, and poets in their 20s who were sprinting up and down two steps at a time; there were poets who had written enough work to have published more than one ‘collected’ or ‘new and selected’ volumes, and there were those whose first books had only recently come out, and still those who hadn’t yet published any book at all. There were poets there whose work I’ve heard or read and thought it was cringe-worthily bad, and poets whose works humble me. There were poetry editors, poetry facilitators, retired professors who had possibly never written a poem themselves but had spent their lives inculcating a love of it in their students; there were widows and widowers and children of famous poets; there were people who weren’t poets or professors of poetry at all but simply friends and ardent readers of poetry like the incredible installation artist Cornelia Parker, who I spoke with outside of the Palace while we huddled against the cold and waited our turn to show the guard our invitations. Cornelia recently helped to judge the Ted Hughes Prize. To represent such incredible diversity – so many kinds of relationships to poetry comes at a fairly obvious price: not everyone can be invited to the party! Yes, the ironic price of inclusiveness is the exclusion of some. No doubt there are some very famous and accomplished British poets and editors who did not receive invitations.
At the palace readings were given by Sinead Morrisey, Liz Lochead (who in the royal household became Elizabeth!), Gillian Clarke, Carol-Ann Duffy and John Agard. The women are all current serving British poet laureates – of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales respectively, and Carol-Ann poet laureate of the whole she-bang. John Agard brought balance I thought as the solitary male voice but also a voice and accent of British poetry that did not originate in Britain. Maybe there is something to be said for the fact that in this celebration of British poetry, none of the readers were actually English (two Scottish poets, one Northern Irish, one Welsh and one Guyanese) but still I think it was a difficult but perfectly achieved balance.
I shook hands with the queen. She dutifully repeated my name. Prince Philip seemed surprised that I taught at the University of Glasgow. At the end of the day however, this was not a state function. No actual honours were given out. If, as it has been strangely suggested, this was the highest honour a British poet could receive, then I worry for all the poets in attendance who won’t ever have to write another poem or another book. They have already achieved it all. I worry especially for those poets in attendance who haven’t written books yet – for it is all over for them before it even began.
(selfie – just now returning from Palace)
So is it greedy of me that having achieved all I could apparently ever hope for, that I still want to ‘achieve’ other things, and that these other things in fact feel more important than my brief audience with the queen? I actually wouldn’t mind having a book shortlisted for a big prize, like the TS Eliot. I would give up my audience with the queen for that in a heartbeat. And now that the position of ‘poet laureate’ has opened up in Jamaica, I think I would like to do that too — sometime in the next decade if it still exists; but most of all I would like every poem I write to do with language what has never been done – I would like to write poems not satisfied with merely saying things in new ways, but also saying things so profoundly true that they would effectively invent their people – people who would feel acutely things that they had only been aware of in a vague and dull way. There is no humanity without language, so to be a poet, to be a shaper of language, is to have a hand in the architecture of our humanity. And to be able to do that every day, and to have people (sometimes only a handful, but that’s ok) willing to read, willing to be reinvented by your work — well, that is the real h0nour that I seek.