Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The New Praise Singer

Gods, kings and assorted overlords all have this in common: they like to be praised. Sadly, the general populace can't be relied upon to burst into regular bouts of spontaneous praise. The smart thing to do, is to appoint someone whose job it is to sing the Great One's praises unstintingly.

From the very dawn of history, we have had priests, minstrels and poets dutifully giving it their best shot. Minstrels and versifiers formed part of William's retinue when he came from Normandy in 1066 to put an end to Saxon rule in England. No doubt it was one of them who first dubbed him The Conqueror.

King Richard took his chief minstrel, Ambroise, along on the Crusades, although I am dubious about his professional merits. After fighting alongside some French Crusaders to conquer a Saracen castle, King Richard insisted on flying the lions of England from the battlements alongside the lilies of France. Ambroise backed him up by singing: " 'Who has more right to fly his flags, the one who stands aside and lags." I can just see him chewing his quill and muttering: "bags, nags, rags … I know! Lags!"

Many countries have an official Poet Laureate, but I am happy to report that Australia is not one of them. We tend to mock rather than fawn upon our masters. African chiefs have always had Praise Singers whose job it is to precede them on all official occasions, chanting and capering. Nelson Mandela's praise singer can often be seen off to one side in news photographs. Look for the guy in the feathers and leopard skin ensemble.

In England, Geoffrey Chaucer was given the title of Poet Laureate and an annual wine allowance in the 14th century, but was not until John Dryden received his official appointment as poet laureate in 1668, that the title was attached to an actual office with named duties: to write verses commemorating royal and national occasions. The remuneration was to be "a butt of sack", which in modern terms means 600 bottles of sherry.

Dryden, Tennyson, Wordsworth and Masefield are among the many distinguished poets to have held the title. Sir Walter Scott refused the job, as did Philip Larkin. I am sorry Larkin didn't accept – my favourite Larkin poem seems tailor-made for the current Royal family. Its first stanza goes:

They f*** you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

This month saw the appointment of a new Poet Laureate in England: Carol Anne Duffy, the first woman to hold the post. She was a strong contender in 1999, but Tony Blair, who gave us the phrase "The People's Princess", vetoed her appointment on the grounds that the voters might balk at "The Lesbian Laureate".

The post went instead to Andrew Motion, who never claimed his 600 bottles of sherry, but distinguished himself by celebrating the marriage of Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones in a poem, of which the critic Robert Potts said in The Guardian, “it has two immediate virtues: it is very short, and it does not mention the couple.”

That's a lot better than the Edwardian laureate Alfred Austin's poem, upon the occasion of the Prince of Wales’s getting sick. It included the lines:

"Across the wires the electric message came / He is no better, he is much the same". Shades of Ambroise the Minstrel!

Ms. Duffy, 53, writes accessible, often witty poems on a wide range of topics, many of them to do with the minutiae of everyday life. In her most popular collection, “The World’s Wife” (1999), overlooked women in history get the chance to tell their side of the story. I particularly like the one about Mrs Darwin:

"7 April 1852
Went to the Zoo
I said to him — Something about that chimpanzee over there reminds me of you."

The new Poet Laureate sensibly asked for her 600 bottles of sherry up front, and declares that she will not be writing poems to order: "If I'm not moved by a royal event", she says, “then I’d ignore it.” I have the feeling she's not going to be flat out in her new job.

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