Oxford-educated and possessed of considerable charm, Michael Massey Robinson was a rogue and a scoundrel. Convicted of extortion in London, he was sentenced to death in 1796. Luckily for him, convicts with his education were desperately needed in Britain’s antipodean colony. So, instead of dangling from a noose, Robinson found himself clinging to the rails of the ship that transported him to New South Wales. He arrived in 1798 and immediately went to work as legal secretary to the newly arrived judge advocate whom he had befriended on the voyage.
After only a fortnight, Governor John Hunter granted Robinson a conditional pardon, but it did not take long for old habits to reassert themselves. In 1802, Robinson was convicted of extortion and transported again, this time for a brief sojourn on Norfolk Island.
When he returned to Sydney, Robinson’s erudition, courtly manners and knowledge of literature impressed Governor Lachlan Macquarie who appointed him to a government post. As a sideline, Robinson composed patriotic odes for royal birthdays and state occasions. He would recite these poems at afternoon “levees” hosted by Macquarie at Government House; most were published in the Sydney Gazette. In 1818 and 1819, Macquarie granted Robinson two cows “for his services as poet laureate”.
There were poets in New South Wales before Robinson arrived—their anonymous “pipes” satirising the King were well known—but Robinson was the first colonial poet to be published and the first to use the noun “Australia” in his works.
Rarely quoted today, Robinson’s verse sounds strained and unctuous to modern ears:
For, while beneath these southern skies,
Thy public works, and temples rise,
Men yet unborn thy worth shall prize,
And bless thy honor’d name!
Macquarie may have been flattered by such fawning but his successor, Thomas Brisbane, was unmoved and quickly dispensed with Robinson’s services. Still, his place in history was assured. Robinson was not only Australia’s first poet laureate but also the last. The post has remained unfilled for 200 years. With a few digressions, and a polemic, the remainder of this article presents a what, where, why, how and who case for restoring the post of poet laureate.
What and Where?
The leaders of Renaissance Europe revived the ancient custom of crowning military heroes with laurel wreaths. Over the years, the term “laureate” evolved to designate any form of outstanding achievement (as in Nobel Laureate).
The first British poet laureate was John Dryden who was appointed to the post in 1668 by King Charles II. Dryden, the foremost literary figure of his time, composed panegyrics praising the monarch:
For his long absence church and state did groan;
Madness the pulpit, faction seized the throne:
Experienced age in deep despair was lost,
To see the rebel thrive, the loyal crost.
Dryden’s heroic couplets earned him an annual salary of £200 and a “butt of Canary wine”. His tenure as poet laureate continued into the reign of James II. As a Catholic convert, Dryden was happy to serve as a spin-doctor for the Catholic king, but the poet was no hypocrite. When James was deposed, Dryden refused to declare loyalty to the Protestants William and Mary. William promptly dismissed him, making Dryden the only poet laureate ever to be fired. Indeed, until recently, poet laureates were appointed for life.
Modern British laureates serve 10-year terms; they are paid £5,750 and may still claim an allowance of sherry. American poet laureates are better remunerated. They serve for one year and receive $35,000, but they have to buy their own drinks.
Despite the low pay, both positions have attracted much-loved poets. Dryden’s successors include Robert Southey, William Wordsworth, John Masefield, John Betjeman, Ted Hughes, Andrew Motion and now, for the first time, a woman and a Scot—the highly esteemed Carol Ann Duffy.
Over the years, there have been a few eccentric office holders. A seventeenth-century poet laureate, an Irishman named Nahum Tate, spent much of his time rewriting Shakespeare’s plays. He described his version of Richard II as “full of respect to Majesty and the dignity of courts“. Eschewing tragedy, Tate’s version of King Lear ends happily with Lear restored to the throne and Cordelia marrying Edgar. Ironically, of the thousands of lines of poetry produced by poet laureates over the centuries, Tate wrote one of the best known: “While shepherds watched their flocks by night”.
At the other end of the spectrum, the works of Alfred Austin, who was appointed Britain’s poet laureate in 1896, are virtually unknown. His obscurity is well deserved. When he heard that the Prince of Wales was ill, Austin wrote: “Across the wires the electric message came, / He is no better, he is much the same“.
By far the longest-serving British poet laureate was Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who held the office for 42 years during Queen Victoria’s reign. A man of his time, Tennyson took the monarchy, the empire and himself pretty seriously. In addition to rousing tributes to national heroes such as Wellington and Nelson, Tennyson composed odes commemorating royal birthdays and immortalised well-known battles (“Cannon to right of them, / Cannon to left of them”).
Tennyson is one of the few people in history to become rich writing poems. His reputation receded in the first half of the last century, but it has returned on a wave of nationalism. In the 2012 James Bond movie, Skyfall, Judy Dench, playing M, quoted one of Tennyson’s pre-laureate poems (“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”).
American poet laureates have been equally distinguished—Robert Penn Warren, Leonie Adams, Louise Gluck, Robert Lowell, Conrad Aiken, William Carlos Williams, Kay Ryan, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Frost, Stephen Spender, Robert Pinsky, Kay Ryan.
American poet laureates are rarely asked to produce celebratory works for public occasions. Indeed, some have publicly spurned such requests, and several have written highly critical poems about political leaders.
A notable exception to these turbulent poets was Robert Frost, whom John Kennedy asked to write and recite a poem at his 1960 presidential inauguration ceremony. Frost completed the work, but the octogenarian poet was unable to read the manuscript on the day because the glare of sunlight on fresh snow rendered him blind. He saved the day by reciting a different poem, which he knew by heart.
As it turns out, the poem that Frost was unable to recite contained his vision for the office of poet laureate. We shall return to his poem in the next section, which addresses the arguments for and against an Australian poet laureate.
Why and Why Not?
It is odd for a country not to have a poet laureate. Countries as diverse as Canada, Ethiopia, India, New Zealand, Ireland, Germany, Serbia, Turkey, Iran, the Netherlands, Nigeria, and the United Kingdom have at least one. The USA has 100—one for the nation, 44 state poet laureates and 55 city and regional ones. In recent years, the cities of London, New York and Los Angeles have each appointed youth poet laureates, and America now has a national youth laureate as well.
In reality, laureates are never commanded to write anything, but some voluntarily take the opportunity to mark momentous events. Although no one ordered her to do so, Britain’s poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, has written poems for a royal wedding, the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation and other significant occasions.Should Australia resurrect its long-vacant position for a poet laureate just because other countries have one? Critics say no. “Official” poetry is an oxymoron—stilted, forced and politically correct. The American poet, Carl Sandburg, ridiculed the idea of writing on demand, “Commanding a person to write a poem is like commanding a pregnant woman to give birth to a red-headed child.”
Once they are appointed, poet laureates may write whatever they wish, but critics argue that political correctness can still subvert the role by influencing who gets the job in the first place. Because of their political views or personal notoriety, some of Britain’s most celebrated poets—Milton, Pope, Byron—were never offered the position of poet laureate. The reverse is also true. To avoid being tainted by politics, much-loved poets, such as Philip Larkin, have refused the job when it was offered to them.
It would be best for both poets and poetry to minimise the role played by politics in choosing a poet laureate, but the relationship between poetry and politics can never be severed. Poetry is about life and politics is part of living. When Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney rejected the opportunity to include his work in a British poetry anthology, he explained his reasons as follows:
Don’t be surprised
If I demur, for, be advised
My passport’s green.
No glass of ours was ever raised
To toast The Queen.
Politics and poetry have always been inextricably entwined. The satires of the King and Robinson’s sycophantic praise of Macquarie reflected the opposing political forces that roiled colonial Australia. In 1860, the first book of verse by a woman to be published in South Australia, South Australian Lyrics, was overtly and deliberately political. The author, Caroline Carleton, attempted to breathe life into a nascent Australian nationalism while remaining loyal to the Crown:
And Freedom’s sons the banner bear,
No shackl’d slave can breathe the air,
Fairest of Britain’s daughters fair—Australia!
Shelley described poets as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. Many of Australia’s most esteemed poets would agree. Judith Wright lamented the effect of colonialism on Australia’s indigenous people (“Did we not know their blood channeled our rivers / and the black dust our crops ate was their dust?”). Mary Gilmore was a utopian socialist (“I split the rock; / I felled the tree: / The nation was— / Because of me!”). Banjo Paterson whose “ghost may be heard as it sings in the billabong” was certainly no fan of political correctness.
On weighty occasions, when our spirits need to soar, only poetry provides the necessary elevation. Consider, for example, “Dedication”, the poem Frost was unable to read at Kennedy’s inauguration. The poem begins by praising Kennedy for being the first American president ever to ask for a poem to be read at such a ceremony:
Summoning artists to participate
In the august occasions of the state
Seems something artists ought to celebrate.
After a brief review of America’s tumultuous path from colonial outpost to world power, Frost bemoans the drabness of modern life: “Some poor fool has been saying in his heart / Glory is out of date in life and art.”
The poem ends by proclaiming a new Augustan age in which politics and poetry combine:
Firm in our free beliefs without dismay,
In any game the nations want to play.
A golden age of poetry and power
Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.
Frost imbued the inauguration ceremony with dignity while portraying the new president as a noble philosopher king. Yearning for Ancient Rome may seem anachronistic in today’s prosaic world, but people still crave grace and splendour (billions watch royal weddings).
A few uplifting lines of poetry at official events would make an excellent contrast to the prattle of our bloviating leaders. It might even help their words to be remembered. Every school child “loves a sunburnt country / a land of sweeping planes”, but how many can recall anything said by Andrew Fisher, who was Prime Minister when Mackellar wrote her famous poem?
At a vigil to mark the terrorist bombing of the Manchester Arena in 2013, politicians tried their best to reassure the mourners, but the only words that anyone present will recall came from Tony Walsh’s poem, This is the Place: “And these hard times again, in these streets of our city, but we won’t take defeat and we don’t want your pity.”
Poetry can play an equally unifying role in Australia’s public life. For example, Joel Deane’s poem, Bushfire Elegy, captured a nation’s mourning for the victim of the Black Saturday bushfires:
Can only see a country burned into the shape of words both beautiful and terrible —beautiful being the harmony of voices that are people and places —terrible being the dissonant roar that is the call of wild fire.
More than any other poet, Les Murray has brought Australia to the world: a “whipcrack country of white cedar / and ruined tennis courts,” home to “passionflower and beige-bellied wonga vine.” However, as the American poet laureate, Joseph Brodsky, put it: “It would be as myopic to regard Mr. Murray as an Australian poet as to call Yeats an Irishman. He is, quite simply, the one by whom the language lives.”
No stranger to politics, Murray has received an abundant array of honours and his name is often raised in connection with the Nobel Prize. His many admirers deem him to be Australia’s ungarlanded poet laureate. However, an official poet laureate can do much more than an unofficial one.
Joseph Brodsky raised funds to place poetry in airports, supermarkets and hotel rooms. Andrew Motion founded an online poetry archive and worked with education authorities to ensure that poetry gained a prominent place in British schools. Robert Pinsky, an American Poet Laureate, created the “Favourite Poem” project and Maxine Kumin ran poetry workshops for politicians. It’s difficult to imagine Australian politicians attending poetry workshops—familiarity with poetry is unlikely to help them win elections. Still, Australia might be better off if our politicians were required to read Shelley’s “Ozymandias”; they may gain some well-deserved humility.
There are many ways to select a poet laureate. In Britain, the Lord Chamberlain makes the appointment on behalf of the Queen, but everyone knows the prime minister makes the choice. The process by which a shortlist is constructed, and a winner chosen, is as opaque as the one used by the College of Cardinals to name a new pope.
In contrast, the Librarian of Congress selects the American Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry (the official title). In making a choice, the librarian consults the staff of the library, former laureates and distinguished poets. Members of the public can also offer nominations. Apart from a requirement to deliver an annual lecture or poetry reading, American poet laureates have few official duties during their one-year in office.
If Australia were to select a poet laureate, the American method provides a better model. It minimises political influence and allows anyone interested to be involved in the process. One-year terms permit many poets to serve and the remuneration for the American poet laureate comes from a private donation, another way to ensure political independence.
In Shelley’s words, the poet laureate should be one who can “measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit”. An appointee has many constituencies, but the poet laureate’s first loyalty must be to poetry itself. In “First Draft, Poet Laureate Oath of Office”, Diane DiPrima, former poet laureate of San Francisco, put it this way:
It is the poem I serve
luminous through time
of human breath.
In the age of money, when ballets, museums and orchestras routinely assess their worth in dollars and cents, poetry stands apart. For hundreds of years, a “floral” poetry contest has taken place in Barcelona. There are three prizes. The third place poem receives a violet made of silver while second is awarded a rose made of gold. The winner receives the Prize of Honour—a real rose. Awarding a flower to the winner is a salutary reminder of Robert Graves’ famous quip, “There’s no money in poetry, but there’s no poetry in money, either.”
Les Murray has said that Aboriginal Australia “was ruled by poetry for tens of thousands of years”. It’s time for poetry to return to public life. Australia needs a poet laureate.
Steven Schwartz is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, Honorary Senior Fellow at the University of Melbourne and Chairman of the Board of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. Excerpts of this article have appeared in a different from in The Conversation and the CHASS Newsletter.