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The Yorkshire poet Simon Armitage has been named as the new UK Poet Laureate, replacing Carol Ann Duffy whose ten-year tenure ends this month. His appointment is another success for his publisher Faber which was recently named Ingram Content Group Independent Publisher of the Year at the Independent Publishers Group awards in the UK.
Armitage told the Guardian that he had no hesitation about taking on the role. “It’s a big commitment, but if you’d asked me 30 years ago what I want to aim for, this might have been on the list. And I feel I’ve been writing the kind of public-facing, public-occasion poetry that this role will require for quite a long time now.”
He hopes to use the position to “act in an ambassadorial way, as a kind of negotiator between what inevitably is something of a specialist art form, and the people who want to read it and respond on occasions with poetry”.
There had been speculation that the post would to a BAME (black, Asian or minority ethnic) writer for the first time, especially with
with diversity and inclusivity at the top of the agenda in British publishing. But the two BAME candidates whose names had been most mentioned ruled themselves out. The Pakistan born poet Imtiaz Dharker, who grew up in Glasgow, reportedly turned the position down, although there were reports that she was about to be named as the next holder of the position; and the black British Jamaican poet Benjamin Zephaniah had already said he was not interested in the position. His fellow black poet, Jackie Kay, is Scotland’s ‘makar’, the same position north of the border, and had effectively ruled herself out as a result.
Armitage has won numerous awards, including last year’s Queen’s Medal for Poetry, given for a body of work, and in 2000 he was the UK’s official Millennium Poet. He manages to be both critically acclaimed – his work is widely studied in schools – and popular. He received the CBE in the Queen’s Honours in 2010, he is a vice president of the UK’s Poetry Society and he is passionate about the art form and the need to widen access to it.
The position of Poet Laureate dates backs to John Dryden in the early 17th century. The Laureate is chosen by a parliamentary committee, and is approved (and ultimately appointed) by the Queen. The shortlisting process is done by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, who are in turn advised by a panel of various poetry and arts organisations.
After Dryden came a run of now little-known names, until Robert Southey who was appointed in 1813. There then came a succession of names who would go on to become world famous: Wordsworth, Tennyson, Robert Bridges, John Masefield, Cecil Day-Lewis, John Betjeman, Ted Hughes and Andrew Motion. Carol Ann Duffy was appointed in 1999.
The position traditionally carries with it a token ‘salary’ of £5,750 and a ‘butt of sack’ – around 600 bottles of sherry – whose name derives from the Medieval French for ‘boot’, botte, ie barrel, and the French for dry, ‘sec’.
Whether Armitage will write something to celebrate the arrival of Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor, the new member of the Royal Family, remains to be seen. He has a dry Yorkshire wit – as does fellow poet Roger McGough who might also have been a contender for the role (though at 81 his age arguably ruled himself out) – and one could imagine either of them producing a humorous ode to the Sleep Derivation Society to which Prince William welcomed his brother and new dad, Prince Harry, after Archie’s arrival.