In Britain, the chase for the Poet Laureate’s job resembles a literary Grand National. Bookies quote odds. Possibilities range from Pam Ayers to Benjamin Zepheniah, virtually everyone except Jacques Santer. Writers write themselves out of consideration, or audition with royal subject matter to try to write themselves in. Vitriol follows verse as literary gossip columns study the form in ways that would make the Racing Post blush. Who’s lobbying whom? Whose connections are better? Who’s Irish? Is it time for the first woman laureate? Who has skeletons in the closet? Do you even have to be British?
The only thing that seems beyond the bounds of the discussion of who will be chosen by the great and the good is the verse itself. Would literary criticism be a factor in deciding who would get a chance to become this generation’s Betjeman? Given that the job’s main responsibility is to sing Royal praises, how could it be?
Private Eye reported the lobbying of the establishment favourite, Andrew Motion; twisting arms like a literary Lyndon Johnson. When the official shortlist was announced; its focus was clear. There are four candidates for poet laureate of Great Britain, two of whom (Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott) are less British than I am, and Heaney has already announced that, like Lyndon Johnson, if nominated he would not run, if elected he would not serve. That leaves Motion against Carol Ann Duffy, somewhat less of an establishment favourite. The bookies, no fools, froze the odds. Long after the most of the running has been made, the winner will finally be announced, giving further post-facto legs to the media “debate”.
It’s all so much easier in San Francisco. Just ask poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. “I was walking past a fancy restaurant in North Beach when a limousine stopped. Mayor Brown jumped out and told me he wanted me to be his poet laureate. He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
Willie Brown had been asked by businessmen in Seoul, Korea if his city had a cultural ambassador. He had promised on the spot to appoint a poet laureate. “Six months later, reporters began to remind him of his promise,” chuckles Ferlinghetti. “Then when he asked me I told him I didn’t trust the corporate structure of the city, and he said, that’s no problem.”
Ferlinghetti, 79, has been central to San Franciscan culture for almost fifty years. His City Lights Bookstore is now a Beat Generation shrine. It was the heart of North Beach’s artistic community, HQ for writers like Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Kenneth Rexroth. Ferlinghetti’s own 1958 collection of poems, A CONEY ISLAND OF THE MIND, is still in print and has sold over a million copies. At the height of 1950s conformity, City Lights published Allen Ginsberg’s HOWL, defended it in court, and helped create an underground which came to define the Counter-culture before it became the over-the-counter culture.
Thus things change. “North Beach was solid Italian in those days, working people,” he recalls. “Now it’s Yuppified, and poets can’t afford to live there. It’s become a theme park, overrun with tourists.” Tourists who flock to catch a glimpse of a legendary time and place he helped build. Ferlinghetti never sought this respectability, but inevitably, it has found him. In fact, back in the 50s, he sent back a questionnaire from “Who’s Who” with the pithy suggestion “Fuck you.”
“It seems now like some other guy did that,” he laughs. “But I was in the book anyway. They include you whether you cooperate or not.” Now Ferlinghetti spends most of his time painting, but he recently released his 14th book of poetry, A FAR ROCKAWAY OF THE HEART, whose title recalls and reflects on his first book. In an effort to keep the Beat spirit alive, he is setting up a non-profit City Lights Foundation, to serve as a cultural centre, give grants, and encourage the arts. It’s part of what he sees as San Francisco’s purpose.
“We dangle off the edge of the world out here. San Francisco’s an island republic with an island mentality. It’s not really part of California or America. In fact, I’m reading in LA soon and I think I’ll need a visa”. He thinks for a minute. “Or maybe as poet laureate, I’ll have diplomatic immunity.”
He sees the laureate’s job as simple. “We need to be reminded that democracy is not defined simply as successful capitalism. I get to say publicly the things ordinary people think, but no one ever reports in newspapers.” In his inaugural speech, Ferlinghetti blasted the city for squeezing out working people and creating an “urban hell” for the convenience of the wealthy. Did this upset Mayor Brown? “No, I think he liked the publicity.”
Where Britain’s laureates serve for their lifetime, San Francisco’s post is an appointment was for only one year. Ferlinghetti will probably wind up serving 18 months, until the end 1999. “I haven’t gotten ossified yet,” he laughs, “but they’ll want new blood for the millennium.”
Asked to pick his likely successor, he opts for the expatriate Englishman Thom Gunn. “He’s a fine poet, and he brings both cultures to bear on his work.” He hasn’t kept up with the race to name Ted Hughes’ successor. “They’ve been doing it so long in Britain, for centuries, the process has congealed by now.” He’s less familiar with most of the candidates. “I do know some people who went across the Bay to Berkeley to hear Seamus Heaney read,” he says. “They fell asleep.”
So who would he choose? He suggests “younger” poets like Tom Pickard and Adrian Mitchell as likely laureates. “Though I guess they’re not so young anymore.” Then he has an inspired idea. “Why not Thom Gunn? He could do both jobs (San Francisco and Britain) at once.”
Whoever becomes Britain’s next laureate is less likely than Ferlinghetti to consider making political waves part of the job description. Back in 1958 San Francisco’s laureate wrote “I am waiting/for the final withering away/of all governments/and I am perpetually awaiting/a rebirth of wonder”. More than forty years later, he’s a part of the government, however nebulously, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti is still waiting.
NOTE: I wrote the original of this story for the Financial Times Weekend in 1999, from California, and its selling point was the hook to the British poet-laureate “race”. It appeared in a somewhat edited form, because what I didn’t know, in my freelance innocence of literary politics, was that the books editor of the FT, for whom I had also written, was Andrew Motion’s wife. My editor had passed the story on to her and I was awakened in LA by a 3 ayem phone call in which she asked spiritedly how I could say such things about his lobbying for the award. I said I had cited Private Eye and she told me, and I remember it almost word for word, that Motion was not lobbying, in fact a week before they had dinner with Chris Smith (then culture minister, thus in charge of the whole selection process) and the subject had not even come up! This was the most English denial I could imagine.
The piece was amended, however. Jan didn’t hold a grudge. Although I did review fewer books for them, declining to zero, that might have been down more to her refusal to pay a kill fee for a piece she wouldn’t use because she didn’t have space for negative reviews. I argued that I couldn’t know in advance how I would react, indeed, the only way to guarantee a reviewer would be positive would be to fix the assignment in advance, which sounded familiar.
Ferlinghetti was a free-form bubbling uncensored interview; I mostly sat back and let him go, and that was fun. I thought his assessment of Heaney was ill-judged, but revealing in its contrast to his enthusiasms (though I too felt Thom Gunn would have been a perfect choice). Ferlinghetti and the Beats were an antidote for the strict formalism and academic classicism of the Fifties, his own work is, like his conversation, straight-forward and unguarded. In both cases, the quality of the content, of which form is the extension, as Robert Creeley would say, speaks for itself. But I was pleased because I thought the interview placed him well within the cultural world of San Francisco, so important at the time, and so much different then. More than twenty years later, his presence there has gone beyond any status as a mere poet laureate.