Definitely not Auden! Archives reveal why some leading names were ruled out for poet laureate
Some top poetry names of the 20th century were ruled out by Downing Street as candidates for poet laureate, including WH Auden, Philip Larkin and Robert Graves, newly released government files reveal, according to the BBC. The role of poet laureate dates back to the 17th century, and has been held in the past by Tennyson and Wordsworth. In May 1967, the appointments secretary at 10 Downing Street was tasked with drawing up a list of the country's best poets, after John Masefield had died after 37 years in the post.
Prime minister Harold Wilson asked John Hewitt, appointments secretary at No 10, to investigate potential candidates. He approached leading figures in the arts, and dons at Oxford and Cambridge. Dame Helen Gardner, Merton Professor of English at Oxford, had some "fairly caustic" comments about the "present quality of poetry" and the "lack of any outstanding talent", the papers reveal.
Auden was excluded because he was an American citizen. John Betjeman was one of the most popular poets. But Dame Helen described him as "a lightweight, amusing but rather trivial". He had "critical views about the establishment", she said, which deemed to be not appropriate.
Robert Graves was "probably the best poet available", she added, but his "manner of life must surely rule him out". Graves had criticised the role and spent most of his time in Majorca.
The popular poet Stevie Smith was dismissed as "absurd", who "wrote 'little girl poetry' about herself mostly”. Cecil Day-Lewis was "a possible" - he produced "run of the mill poetry but nothing particularly outstanding". That view was echoed by the chair of the Poetry Society, Geoffrey Handley-Taylor. He told Hewitt that Graves was "too peculiar" and "too anti-establishment". Betjeman, he said, "called himself a poetic hack and there was some truth to this". He described Smith as "unstable". By contrast Day-Lewis was "a good administrative poet" and "a safe bet".
The US Beat poet Allen Ginsberg proposed the singer Donovan, whose singles Sunshine Superman and Mellow Yellow had recently topped the charts. Ginsberg even sent a hand-drawn "flower card" to No 10 with the words "Donovan for Laureate". Officials did not respond.
On September 14, 1967, Hewitt wrote to the prime minister proposing Day-Lewis. The alternative, Betjeman, would be a "backward-looking choice", he said. He had been described as "the songster of tennis lawns and cathedral cloisters".
Wilson agreed, but he wanted Hewitt to explore the possibility of appointing additional poets laureate for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. That was not pursued, and in January 1968, the announcement was made. Four years later, the search began again, after Day-Lewis died.
Auden was again under consideration, according to newspaper reports, and apparently the bookies' favourite. But No 10 was warned by Ross McWhirter - of the Guinness Book of Records - that Auden was said to be the author of a "pornographic" poem entitled ‘The Gobble’, published in an underground magazine. (A poem by Auden that sounds very much like it, titled ‘The Platonic Blow’, and extending to five pages, was published in the anthology The Poetry of Sex in 2014).
McWhirter worried that if Auden were selected this could "bring disgrace upon the appointment" and this would reflect on the Queen herself. The now-Sir John Hewitt told him Auden wasn't on the shortlist.
This time Philip Larkin was under serious consideration - described by Hewitt as "a first-rate craftsman". But the critic Jon Stallworthy warned Larkin disliked public speaking. Officials were advised he was a "reserved" man who would not be an ambassador for poetry.
A so-called "poets' conference", representing younger writers, suggested Adrian Mitchell and George MacBeth, but they didn't make it into the final selection.
Then Prime Minister Ted Heath, picked Betjeman, who accepted, writing that he was "honoured and delighted and at the same time humbled".
In 1984, a new laureate was needed, following Betjeman's death. Mrs Thatcher's officials put together a list of names and recommendations. Larkin was the most popular choice, but the BBC says that one unnamed figure objected.
That one unnamed figure could have been Larkin himself. According to Andrew Motion, biographer of Larkin, he was offered the laureateship, but turned it down. In a letter shortly afterwards he said that “Mrs Thatcher [had been] very nice and understanding about it all.” Larkin died a year later.
Ted Hughes was picked, even though only two people proposed him. Hughes took the role seriously, became quite pally with the Royal Family, and even accompanied the Queen Mother on occasional fishing trips..
Whereas it used to be a lifetime post, since the death of Hughes the appointment has been for a fixed term of 10 years. The current laurate Simon Armitage's tenure runs until 2029.