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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.

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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.

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(Carol-Ann Duffy)

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.

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(John Agard)

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.

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(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.

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17 thoughts on “Not Everyone Was Invited To The Party

  1. Personally I’d take being left out as a backhanded compliment – poets should be concerned with things of more real importance than kissing tghe collective rumps of the house of windsor & its associated hangers on.

  2. I do think it’s unfair to single out Todd Swift. He was not the only poet who was miffed. It’s jolly that you all had a good time.

  3. Confirms my belief in republicanism. The honours system which includes the granting of a place at such receptions is a corrosive part of the class system in Great Britain sad to see poets being collaborators.

  4. Was there, and obvs believe you are right to undermine the point about an invitation being a particularly high honour. It wasn’t. It was fun, then we all went back to our tiny houses.

  5. I’m sure the Queen didn’t mind too much, on balance, that she had to spend an evening suffering the sight of some of her subjects having a jolly exciting time at Buck Pal, whether or not it was the greatest thing that has ever happened to them. But who else gives a shit? Why would they? None of this has anything to do with poetry, or even with how it is perceived.

    It’s a bit of a shame you picked up on Todd’s post specifically, since a few others were similarly ‘outraged’ – silly as that outrage might seem. All the same, the whole Royal shebang turns my stomach.

  6. I’m glad you had a good time, but let’s not frame poetic success as winning prizes and becoming laureates. A look back at literary history shows us that most poets laureate were talentless creeps. As for winning an award or a prize, you know how corrupt judging panels are, how they are stuffed with career poets of dubious achievement looking out for one another. Honours and prizes do not mean you’ve finally in some sense ‘made it’ as a poet. Look at William Blake – utterly ignored in his lifetime. Poetry is elsewhere.

    • Well said Rufus, and of course I quite agree that the main measure of a poet is in the poetry, the main measure of a writer in his writing. I’d much rather be remembered for something I wrote than something I won. I’d be lying though if I didn’t admit to that part of myself that does like the occasional acknowledgment, even though I admit poetry is outside of that.

    • tend to agree though I don’t think Ted Hughes was talentless – I won an award years ago – it was a real education. Went down to London to RIBA to get it for the work I’d done with children. So I get there, all excited like the big soft kid I am and am told “If you must speak, keep it short” – I was introduced to Andrew Motion who as I was half way through saying “Very pleased to meet you” turned away and started talking to someone “Important” – I got money (£500) which paid the rent arrears and a certficate (unsigned) in a snap frame. I then sat there listening while one sycophant after another praised “Sir Andrew” – and got about three minutes myself – had my photo taken with Jaqueline Wilson who smiled while the camers were clicking and then walked away without another word once they were done – in short (as Micawber would say) they treated me like a piece of shit – I got that award for working with and helping kids – Andrew Motion was loved because “he’s on first name terms with govt. ministers” – I swore then that I’d NEVER attend an event like that again. And I never will.

  7. The first problem with a hereditary bloodline Monarchy is that it is entirely undemocratic.

    This is an un-deniable view and a massive, un-reconcilable contradiction in the heart of this country. The majority are pro-Democracy -but the Majority are also pro-Monarchy –this is like being an Atheist And believing in God.

    Defences of this position are therefore always emotional or non-rational defences-as it is unarguable.

    Secondly, as an ever-present symbol-the Monarchy legitimises the whole power/class/economic structures and division between people in this country— which is widening and getting worse-through The House Of Lords, The Honour’s List Etc—it is the defining apex of that- and with The Queen as The Head Of The Church of England, and her grandsons -very visibly- serving in our Armed Forces in recent [ often terrible and illegal] wars-also help give legitimacy to these. This doesn’t just happen -its a co-ordinated campaign [ started just after Diana’s death when support for The Monarchy was polling at below 50%] in order to re-build up the monarchy’s image and revitalise its power as a controlling image. Contributors to these campaigns [through his contacts with The Sun and The News Of The World ] and in his former ‘role’ as PR adviser to David Cameron was one Mr Coulson for instance. [Not only the pro Monarchy/Armed Forces campaigns but also the
    ‘Shop your neighbour if they are a Benefit Scrounger Campaigns. Lovely.].

    I find it incredibly naive that poets [or anyone] could think that they hold these celebrations [of poetry, or guitarists -The Queen meets Jimmy Page Etc!] in order to honour that particular art-form- they do so to absorb these areas into ‘the realm of The Monarchy’ [its called incorporation’, to legitimise their undemocratic power and to continue the illusion that they are an in-touch and necessary institution. It entirely self-serving.

    Ergo–if you attend one of them you are [wittingly or unwittingly] propping up a undemocratic institution and symbol of division.

    They are supported of course, not only by the entire Right-Wing press/Establishment but also by supposedly [ha!] neutral institutions like The BBC —– which is meant to be balanced—did anyone see The Republican argument being given equal air-time to the recent Jubilee Celebrations…..? Even The Weathermen were employed to big it up.

    So the attendees are also[wittingly or unwittingly] siding with this Right-Wing bias and giving to extra credibility—- [ look, even poets support the Monarchy!].

    Shelley must not only be turning in his grave [with his ‘enlarged heart] but whirring like
    a drill bit.

  8. Thanks for the article Kei. Have to say I feel a strong resonance with Matthew Caley’s comment here. A number of my friends went and they’re still my friends!-but I really feel it is not just a bit of harmless fun, it is a consolidation of what I percieve as a really unhealthy elite system. Matthew’s point about a PR war on behalf of royalty ( and therefore the elite ) is a really good one. And its not enough to say “I don’t agree with the royalty but the Queen is a lovely woman.” So’s my mum. If people have weighed up the pros and cons of an elite class stratified Britain with the royalty as the outward manifestation of it,and decided to support it, fair enough. Matthew’s comment said it better than me. Legitimising something is significant.
    I also accept there are different levels of politics here. It’s good that it was a bit more diverse than it might been a few years ago, and on that macro-level that’s some sort of positive indicator (of what ? that the state in 2013 isnt quite as classist and racist as it would have been a few years ago?)
    If I was a maker and shaker in the poetry world and worked for a big organisation that needed lobbying or leverage, would I have went for my own micropolitical advantage? Mmm no, because of my own political world view, but I do understand there are dilemmas there. I know people went for a wide range of reasons, but Matthew’s main point about the culminating effect as legitimisation, is a good one.I also know a lot of poets won’t share that world view and that’s fair enough.
    Best wishes – Joe Duggan

  9. Phew, I’ve finally found some comments which rise above the “We had a jolly evening and there was plenty of champagne” type. I wasn’t invited and I didn’t expect to be but the whole thing has left me with an uneasy feeling. I’m dismayed (though perhaps not surprised?) to hear from various quarters that our uneasy feeling is nothing more than sour grapes because we were not invited! Really, is that the level of debate which exists among supposedly highly literate people? Attending such an event is not a neutral act, any more than accepting something on the Honours List.

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