Britain Appoints First Female Poet Laureate In Nearly 400 Years

Digital Journal, May 1, 2009.

Breaking its 341-year tradition of male appointees—held by such literary greats as William Woodsworth and Alfred Tennyson—Britain has chosen Carol Ann Duffy as its first woman poet laureate.

The 53-year-old, born in Glasgow, Scotland, is also openly lesbian. It was, in fact, Ms. Duffy’s sexual identity that came in the way of her securing the post 10 years ago, in 1999.

Despite her huge popularity, the British press, at the time, indicated that her appointment would raise a lot of eyebrows. So, the laureateship went to Andrew Motion, from whom she takes over.

Ms. Duffy is one of Britain’s most celebrated poets and playwrights, having written numerous award-winning poetry collections, plays, and fairy tales for children.

She’s the creative director at the Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University. Some of her notable works include: “The World’s Wife” (1999), “Standing Female Nude” (1985), “Mean Time” (1993), “Feminine Gospels” (2002), and “Rapture” (2005).

The royal position, which was originally held for life, is now, term-limited. Hence, Ms. Duffy, like Mr. Motion, will hold it for the next 10 years, until 2019.

Reuters reports:

The holder of the title receives 5,750 pounds ($8,600) a year. According to the [Poetry] Society, the laureate’s original salary was 200 pounds per year plus a butt of canary wine. John Betjeman [who held the office between 1906 and 1984] had the tradition revived in 1972 and today’s laureate receives a barrel [which is about 600 bottles] of sherry.”

According to published sources, the poet laureate also receives an annual honorarium of around £5,750 ($8,561), paid for by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

The Guardian reports that she “plans to donate her yearly stipend of £5,750 to the Poetry Society [one of Britain’s leading arts organizations] to fund a new poetry prize for the best annual collection.”

“I didn’t want to take on what, basically, is an honor on behalf of other poets and complicate it with money,” she explained. “I thought it was better to give it back to poetry,” she was quoted in the daily.

In the old days, the office involved writing poems to commemorate special occasions like a royal event or national occasions. Today however, the decision to create odes or not, rests entirely with the individual.


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