Australia has had only one poet laureate. That was a former convict, Michael Massey Robinson, who was appointed by Governor Lachlan Macquarie in the early 19th century to write odes for royal birthdays. He received a couple of cows from the government herd for his trouble.
His Ode for the Queen’s Birthday, 1814 included the immortal lines: “ILLUSTRIOUS QUEEN! exalted WIFE! / Ador’d thro’ ev’ry Stage of Life / By Nature’s Impulse taught to share / THY CONSORT’s ling’ring Hours of Care.”
Two centuries the position of poet laureate is set to be revived under the federal government’s new national cultural policy. In 2025 Australia will join the likes of the US, New Zealand, UK, Canada, Jamaica, Nigeria and appoint an official poet laureate.
British poet laureate Simon Armitage meets the boss, the late Queen Elizabeth II, on his appointment in 2019.Credit:
But what does a poet laureate do? In Britain, the job is a royal appointment on advice from the Prime Minister and the chosen poet commemorates royal occasions as well as working on their own projects. The current poet laureate, Simon Armitage, marked the death of Queen Elizabeth II with Floral Tribute, which came shortly after he wrote Queenhood to mark her platinum jubilee: “A priceless freight for a young woman to bear / but, draped and adorned, a monarch walks forward / into the sideways weather of oncoming years.”
Sarah Holland-Batt is an award-winning poet and Professor of Creative Writing & Literary Studies at the Queensland University of Technology, who advocated for Australia to have a poet laureate in her submission to the national cultural policy and read her poem The Gift at the announcement of the policy in Melbourne on Monday. She says the person chosen would promote poetry generally and connect it more with the public.
“An Australian poet laureate would elevate the status of Australian poetry domestically and internationally ,” Holland-Batt says. “Australian literature can struggle on the world stage so there would be a soft diplomacy element to it.”
She said the laureate would be an advocate for Australia and Australian writing and the benefits would be beyond only poetry.
“It would be a big boost for Australian literature to have someone with that authority invested by the state.”
But she also said the office should not be too prescribed:“There should be the leeway for each poet to do what they want. There would have to be a degree of trust.”
Peter Rose, poet and editor of Australian Book Review, one of the country’s leading literary magazines, said Australia needed a poet laureate.
Peter Rose says it’s a great opportunity to present poetry to the public in a way that may demystify it to the public.Credit:Justin McManus
“Other literary cultures have had them for centuries, ” he says. “We see all the benefits in those positions. But they must have considerable freedom and budget. It’s a great opportunity to present poetry to the public in a way that may demystify it to the public.”
Rose said the appointment would be crucial, but doesn’t know the criteria would be for selection.
“I don’t think it should be a lifetime achievement award. It should be a real communicator, someone who can convey poetry to non-readers. It’s important for it to go to people with a real record and commitment to public education. Someone with a real hunger to counter the sense that poetry is too difficult, or the most elite form of literature, someone of considerable charm and eloquence.”
So who should it be? Holland-Batt said it should be a distinguished person, someone who has obviously published poetry but also written about poetry and engaged with the poetry of others. And significantly, someone who could respond to public events. “Occasional poems are really difficult to write,” she said.
Ada Limon delivers one lecture in her capacity as US poet laureate.Credit:AP
Lyn McCredden, emeritus professor of creative writing and literary studies at Deakin University, said she hoped whoever is chosen was someone who could speak to people, to celebrate and be positive. “I don’t want someone who is oblique and full of misery,” she says.
She said there were a lot of Indigenous poets and younger poets using language in a vibrant and contemporary way. “It should be someone who has breadth and a sense of the diversity of the Australian people and a sense of the land. It is about making us proud and also correcting our blindness and speaking to new possibilities.”
Poets who may be up for consideration in a selection process yet to be determined include David Malouf, Ali Cobby Eckerman, Evelyn Araluen, Judith Beveridge, John Kinsella, Lachlan Brown, Adam Aitken, as well as other award winners or prolific poets.
The title of poet laureate dates back to classical Greece and Rome when poets were presented with a crown of laurel leaves in honour of Apollo, the god of poetry. In Britain, the position was created in 1668 with John Dryden the first royal appointment. Alfred, Lord Tennyson held the office for more than 40 years in the 19th century, but now poets serve a 10-year fixed term. Carol-Ann Duffy was the first woman in the position, with Armitage succeeding her in 2019.
The US created the office in 1936 and since 1986 the laureate is also the consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress. The current laureate, Ada Limon, is obliged to give one lecture and read her work at the library, but is free to work on her own writing. But many US states and cities also have poets laureate, as do Canadian provinces. In Canada the laureate is obliged to write in French and English; the current holder is Louise Bernice Halfe.
The New Zealand position was first established in 1997, by a winery, but 10 years later the national Library took over the running. Chris Tse is the current laureate.
When Andrew Motion attended the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May 1999 news leaked that he was to be Britain’s new poet laureate. But what surprised Motion most was not that he had been chosen – he knew his name was up for consideration – but the interest shown in Australia. Now that interest can turn to our own poet laureate.
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