I will never forget the beginning of Lion King.
The sun rises and Lebo Morake’s Zulu chant “Circle of Life” explodes onto the scene and ushers the audience into an epic, animated experience. The song continues as various aninmals make their way to Pride Rock, where they have been summoned to see the appointing of their future King, Simba.
Well I have an unveiling that is not as dramatical and spectacular than the opening sequence of the Lion King, but just as important.
Ladies and Gentlemen I give to you our new Poet Laureate……………
Carol Ann Duffy
For all of you that do not know a Poet Laureate is a poet officially appointed by a government to compose poems for state occasions and other government events.
Read on to discover more about Carol’s rise to the top.
Words by Alison Flood
Friday 1 May 2009 10.02 BST
Four hundred years of male domination came to an end today with the election of Carol Ann Duffy as poet laureate. Duffy, the widely-tipped favourite for the post, only agreed to accept the post ahead of poets Simon Armitage and Roger McGough because “they hadn’t had a woman”.
Speaking on Woman’s Hour this morning on Radio 4, she revealed that she had thought “long and hard” about accepting the offer.
“The decision was purely because they hadn’t had a woman,” she said. “I look on it as recognition of the great women poets we now have writing, like Alice Oswald.”
Duffy said she was ready to deal with the scrutiny which comes as part and parcel of the laureateship, suggesting that her experience of public appearances would stand her in good stead, but that she would vigorously defend her private life. “I’m a very private person and I will continue to fiercely protect my privacy and my daughter,” she said.
She declared herself ready to tackle the official verse which the laureateship requires, but only if the occasion inspired her. “If not, then I’d ignore it,” she said.
She plans to donate her yearly stipend of £5,750 to the Poetry Society to fund a new poetry prize for the best annual collection. “I didn’t want to take on what basically is an honour on behalf of other poets and complicate it with money,” she explained. “I thought it was better to give it back to poetry.”
She has, however, asked that her “butt of sack” – the 600 bottles of sherry traditionally given to the laureate – should be delivered up front, after learning that Motion is yet to receive his allocation.
News of her appointment began to leak earlier this week, when bookmakers stopped taking bets following a rush of money backing Duffy. This year marked the first occasion on which the public was invited to make suggestions for the laureateship to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport – a move which is likely to have helped the bestselling Duffy to clinch the role. The DCMS also consulted with the poetry establishment to come up with a shortlist for the laureate, and passed this on to Number 10, with the Queen approving the final choice of Duffy.
Gordon Brown, the prime minister, congratulated her as both the first poet laureate of the 21st century and “as the first woman to hold the post”. Calling her a “truly brilliant modern poet” he paid tribute to her ability to put “the whole range of human experiences into lines that capture the emotions perfectly” and wished her well for her ten-year term.
She takes over from current incumbent Andrew Motion, who wished her luck in an email exchange earlier this morning. Motion has completed a decade in the post, writing poems for events including the Queen’s 80th birthday in 2006, the 100th birthday and death of the Queen Mother, and a rap for Prince William’s 21st.
Duffy, 53, narrowly missed out on the laureateship to Motion in 1999 after the death of Ted Hughes, who had held the post since 1984. Despite being widely held as favourite at the time, she was reluctant to take up the prominent role given her status as a mother in a lesbian relationship (with the Scottish poet Jackie Kay; the relationship has since ended).
At the time, Duffy told the Guardian that she “didn’t want to do the thing”, but when “all these stories started appearing, I got scores of letters from women saying do it, do it, do it. But I was never really sure. I never really came out and said whether I wanted it or not.” Quoted as saying that the role needed to be “much more democratic”, more people’s poet than monarch’s bard, and that she would “not write a poem for Edward and Sophie – no self-respecting poet should have to”, she’d actually backed the late UA Fanthorpe – whose death aged 79 was announced yesterday – for the post.
As one of the bestselling poets in the UK, Duffy has managed to combine critical acclaim with popularity: a rare feat in the poetry world. Her 1999 collection The World’s Wife, which saw every poem told in the voice of a wife of a great historical figure, from Mrs Aesop to Queen Herod, was the first to gain her mass appeal. She went on to add a CBE in 2002 to her 1995 OBE, and won the TS Eliot prize in 2005 for her collection of linked love poems, Rapture. She has also won the Dylan Thomas award, the Whitbread poetry prize, the Somerset Maugham award and the Forward prize, and features regularly on school and university syllabuses. Furthermore, she is no stranger to the writing to deadline that the laureateship requires; last September saw her penning a swift poetic response to the news that one of her collections had been removed from the GCSE syllabus for supposedly glorifying knife crime.
In an interview with Jeanette Winterson, Duffy said that when she started on the poetry circuit in the 70s, she was called a “poetess”. “Older male poets, the Larkin generation, were both incredibly patronising and incredibly randy. If they weren’t patting you on the head, they were patting you on the bum,” she said. She stressed to Winterson that she was “not a lesbian poet, whatever that is”. “If I am a lesbian icon and a role model, that’s great, but if it is a word that is used to reduce me, then you have to ask why someone would want to reduce me? I never think about it. I don’t care about it. I define myself as a poet and as a mother – that’s all.”
As well as her seven collections for adults, marked by their accessibility, lightness of touch and emotional depth, Duffy also writes poetry and picture books for children, edits anthologies, and has written a number of well-received plays. She lives in Manchester, where she is creative director of the writing school at Manchester Metropolitan University.
The origins of the laureateship are somewhat hazy, but Ben Jonson is believed by many to have been the first to hold the position; the role (along with a pension of 100 marks a year) was conferred on him by James I. Previous laureates include Wordsworth, Tennyson, Cecil Day-Lewis and John Betjeman.
The first woman to be considered for the laureateship was Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1850, when William Wordsworth died, but Tennyson was chosen in her stead. Forty-two years later, Christina Rossetti was overlooked on Tennyson’s death, when rather than appoint a woman the position was left vacant until Alfred Austin – viewed today as one of the worst ever laureates – was appointed.
Motion, who is the first laureate to resign the office, has advised his successor to take “steps to preserve [their] privacy”, saying last year that “no matter how well known you are as a writer, it’s almost impossible to imagine what it is like being jerked out of one semi-private life into a more-or-less public life”.
He has also warned about the havoc the laureateship can wreak on one’s own writing. “I dried up completely about five years ago and can’t write anything except to commission,” he said last September.
Last week he read out his final piece of public verse, a series of limericks about the budget he composed while in the bath which concluded: “The duty of writing / Lines sharp and exciting / On this – it ain’t mine, but my heir’s as PL.”