Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Rhyme Without Reason: Or, £70 and a Butt of Sack

British poet laureate Andrew Motion told an audience at the Ealing Arts Festival in London this month that the Queen has given him writer’s block. "The job has been very, very damaging to my writing," Motion said. "In fact, I dried up completely about five years ago and can’t write anything except to commission."

Unlike Motion's American counterpart, the British poet laureate is responsible not only for promoting poetry generally but for composing original verse for ceremonial occasions, including royal weddings, birthdays, and funerals -- poems the Queen barely acknowledges, much less appreciates. According to Motion, "The job has been incredibly difficult and entirely thankless. The Queen never gives me an opinion on my work for her."

Making matters worse, the job pays peanuts. Or rather, it pays £70 annually and a “butt of sack,” or barrel of Spanish wine. (Fun fact: during his tenure, Motion negotiated a stipend increase to £5,000 annually and a crate, not a barrel, of the coveted Spanish hooch. Coopers everywhere dropped their bung-borers and bilge hoops in disgust.)

Motion, whose fellow laureates include Ben Johnson, William Wordsworth, Alfred Tennyson and, more recently, Ted Hughes, will resign next year from the lifetime appointment. "I thought the poetry had all gone," he said to his London audience, "but I feel some of it is still there and may yet return."

I hope so. Reading the self-described "rap-style" tribute Motion cobbled together for Prince William’s twenty-first birthday, one gets the feeling that the poor man can’t scale the wall, or dog-paddle the moat, or leap from the Queen's dank tower quickly enough:
Better stand back
Here’s an age attack,
But the second in line
Is dealing with it fine.

It's a threshold, a gateway,
A landmark birthday;
It's a turning of the page,
A coming of age.

It's a day to celebrate,
A destiny, a fate;
It's a taking to the wing,
A future thing.

Better stand back
Here's an age attack,
But the second in line
Is dealing with it fine.


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