Poetry: news that isn’t news

Photo by Fiona Hanson, Reuters
Photo by Fiona Hanson, Reuters

Now that Andrew Motion is standing down as Poet Laureate after a ten-year stretch he’s been writing about the experience. Although both the Queen and Tony Blair told him when he was appointed that he didn’t have to write anything, the nation’s newsrooms had a different view.

You’ll just have to take my word for it: every time there’s been a royal birth or wedding or death in the past 10 years, a terrible low rumble has begun in newsrooms across the country. A rumble that has soon led to people ringing me up to ask whether I’m “thinking of doing something”. The voice at the other end of the line puts the question in such a way as to make me feel that I’ll be castigated as an idle sherry-swilling republican if I don’t take the top off my pen and start rhyming at once.

But of course, the arrival of a new ‘royal’ poem – he’s written eight – wasn’t of itself news.

I sent them to my agent, who sent them to newspapers, where they landed on news editors’ desks. News editors don’t think a poem is a story in and of itself, so they then get on the phone to as many people as it takes to find someone who doesn’t like the poem – then they have their story: poet laureate writes another no-good poem.I’m not the first laureate to complain about this. … The point is: it’s bad for poetry in general – but journalists apparently have some difficulty (or, more likely, no interest) in grasping this.

The accelerating decline in newspapers is well-documented, and much of it is down to digital technology and generational change. But I can’t but wonder – I write this as a sometime journalist myself – whether this ingrained cultural response by journalists, which frames so much of the way the ‘news’ agenda is constructed and framed, hasn’t also got something to do with it.

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