Friday, 22 August 2008

Who will be the Queen's canary?

In 2009 a new poet laureate will be chosen to replace the founder of the Poetry Archive (see sidebar link) Andrew Motion. Poet-in-Residence, a 1,000/1 outside shot (or whatever the maximum odds are at the bookies) for the post, speaks here only of the UK poet laureate. Do not confuse with the challenging and interesting USA version where Kay Ryan is currently the poet in the chair.
In the early 1940s, in other words during the 2nd World War, Dylan Thomas saw through all the bardic chicanery and got together with John Davenport to write alternate chapters in a spoof poet laureate crime mystery titled The Death of the King's Canary (Hutchinson). George VI was then (1936-52) on the throne following the abdication of Edward VII.
As Constantine Fitzgibbon points out in her introduction to the book, published in 1976, the book was in the 1940s unpublishable because many of the main characters were still alive.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown will soon have the duty of selecting the next poet laureate and Poet-in-Residence hopes that his choice will be one that can raise the slumbering profile of UK Poetry.
It would appear that Dylan Thomas himself wrote the introductory paragraphs of The Death of the King's Canary since it was an original idea burning in Dylan's brain from 1938 and anyway they carry Dylan's humorous twice-licked stamp. Here then, something from the introductory paragraphs.

His nerves had not been soothed by the bishop's unctuous platitudes. An unsettling evening. First, the bomb in the shrubbery - no loss of life, but such a noise; then dinner, and he had looked forward to dinner - every bottle of the Chambertin 1911 hopelessly grey-haired. Then the bishop. Thank God he'd gone to bed at last, taking their memories with him. It was only when the bishop came that the Prime Minister realized how dull his life had been.
The door behind him opened. What were they going to do to him now? It was his private secretary. The Prime Minister looked relieved: he knew that he had nothing to fear. Peace reigned temporarily on earth and peace would reign at Chequers.
'Thought you'd gone to bed.'
'Just on my way, sir. I've brought you the poets.'
What midnight delegation of poets had tracked him here?
'The poets?'
'For the Laureatship, sir. You said you'd decide this weekendend. I've made a few notes about their background and so on.'
'Have I got to read them, Faraday?'
'Afraid so, sir.'
'Well, leave them on the table. Goodnight.'
'Goodnight, sir.'
His condor's head caught the lamplight as he left the library. A profound self-compassion filled the Prime Minister. He rang the bell; and crossing the room, chose a cigar.
'You rang, sir?'
He hated the butler's great slab of a face.
'A bottle of Napoleon brandy, Bibby.'
'Very good, sir.'
The cigar was drawing well. He crossed to the window and listened conscientiously to the nightingales until the brandy came.
'You needn't wait up, Jackson.'
'Thank you, sir. Goodnight, sir.'
The butler, whose name was Philpot, closed the door behind him . . .

. . .

His eye fell on the pile of brightly wrappered poets, and he sighed. Ah well, perhaps it might not be such a ghastly task after all: he did not read much English poetry later than Pope, although he admired Tennyson's ear. These people might be interesting.
On top of the books lay a page of Faraday's neat script.
'Albert Ponting, born Balham 1910. Ed. privately. Did Chemistry course at Polytechnic. Must read, but suggest unsuitable.'
The Prime Minister picked up a volume called Claustrophosexannal. The title was puzzling. He opened the book and began to read.

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