Stevie Smith was deemed too “unstable” to be poet laureate, according to the chair of the Poetry Society. Image: Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo

It should have been Stevie Smith: the terrible artistic decisions made by administrators

The newly released National Archive documents on the appointment of a new laureate in the 1960s are a lesson in what happens when politics mixes with poetry
July 25, 2023

It was early 1999, a few months after the death of Ted Hughes, the last poet laureate appointed for life. I was minding my own business in an Oxford bookshop, when I noticed an unusual amount of activity in the poetry section. A BBC News crew were setting up to report on the new laureate shortlist (the job eventually went to Andrew Motion). I overheard a haunting, off-mic remark: “Well, if the PM finds out about his private life, he won’t get it.”

Not being the PM, I never found out who “he” was. But the remark—calm, confidential, worldly—came back to me while reading the official correspondence, recently released by the National Archives, on the appointment of the poet laureate after the death of John Masefield in 1967. Masefield had been an exemplary public poet for almost four decades, regularly posting royal odes to the Times and speaking on BBC radio, while living the life of a respectable family man. From Whitehall’s point of view, he embodied the ideal laureate: a civil servant of punctual inspiration and no hushed-up complications.

The end of the 1960s in Britain was a uniquely interesting moment for this old-fashioned model of the laureateship to be tested. The most popular poet in the country, by a country mile, was John Betjeman, whose neo-Victorian verse promised to fill the Masefield mould nicely. But—we now know—the chair of the Arts Council, Arnold Goodman, regarded Betjeman as a “songster of… cathedral cloisters,” and therefore not “a very suitable incumbent for the poet laureateship of a new and vital world in which we hope we are living.”

Goodman’s choice phrasing “cathedral cloisters” to damn the poet’s work is telling. Betjeman was also an architecture critic who campaigned for the preservation of unfashionable Victoriana, preferring peeling stucco over “textureless” glass-and-concrete modernity. This put him at odds with Goodman, who was then overseeing the building of London’s brutalist Southbank Centre.

A consummate cultural operator, Goodman’s diplomatic tact can be heard in that deft phrase “we hope we are living”: his views on poetry aligned with those of the Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, and his vision of a Britain with “no place for… outdated methods”. But poetry is not industry, and what readers appreciated about Betjeman was precisely his feeling for antique craft. The Yes-Minister-ish decision to honour the lesser talent of Cecil Day-Lewis—who had long renounced the communist beliefs of his youth—on the grounds that he was “a good administrative poet” is one of the most chilling literary judgements I have ever heard.

On the other hand, the white heat of modernity still needed damping down occasionally. When Day-Lewis died in 1972, WH Auden—by far the best poet of the 1930s—emerged as the bookies’ favourite. The establishment panicked. Yes, the writer who notoriously left England for America shortly before war broke out in 1939 was now a liberal-minded Anglican rather than a Marxist. And, in theory, it was no longer a problem that Auden was an openly gay man, thanks to the passing of the decriminalising Sexual Offences Act in 1967. But the journalist Ross McWhirter, who stood as a Conservative candidate in the 1964 general election, thought otherwise.

McWhirter notified those in Edward Heath’s Conservative administration who were “advising the Queen” on her next laureate that Auden was (correctly) rumoured to be the anonymous author of a spectacularly explicit jeu d’esprit about casual sex with a New York mechanic called Bud. Titled “The Platonic Blow”, the poem had recently surfaced in Suck One, Europe’s “first sex paper”, having previously appeared in an underground American publication called Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts.

Unfortunately, the National Archives don’t hold a copy of Auden’s deeply samizdat “gobble poem” because—as McWhirter regretted—“I cannot legally send you the offending matter by post.” Although homosexual activity between consenting adults over 21 was now legal, a brilliantly rhymed description of it might still test the limits of the 1959 Obscene Publications Act, even after the landmark trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960.

Virtuoso lines such as “His thighs squirmed as my tongue wormed in his hole” make “The Platonic Blow” a strong candidate for the greatest erotic verse of the century. But it also gave a new meaning to Auden’s own often-quoted remark about the undesirability of “public faces in private places”, and may have been enough to send the political dial quivering back to Betjeman, who was duly appointed.

Luckily for Sir John, who had been knighted in 1969, none of his enemies had a copy of “Sweets and Cake”, his own illicit poem describing a breathless encounter between two schoolboys, Teddy and Neville. But what writer worth reading would survive an appointments committee if examined for everything ever committed to paper? To quote the contemporary poet John Wilkinson, the paradox at the heart of lyric poetry is that “the most idiosyncratic and inadmissible is the most deeply shared”.

As Auden defeatedly observed in 1962, modern poets struggle to evoke the public world because the “impersonal force” of the modern state requires its separation from the private life: “to write a good poem on Churchill, a poet would have to know Winston Churchill intimately, and his poem would be about the man, not about the Prime Minister.”

But good poems on public subjects can still be written. For my money, the best living poet discussed in 1967 was Stevie Smith. She would uniquely have bridged the 1930s generation and the young poets of the 1960s, who appealed to the new audiences created by live music with provocative (and often comic) free verse. The pop poets admired Smith for similar qualities, as well as her disarming tendency to chant her verse.

Far from writing “about herself mostly”—as one expert ignorantly advised—Smith was intellectually stimulated by the social reality of modern Britain, with its declining faith and empire. Her long essay-poem “How Do You See?” was published in the Guardian in 1964. Lines such as “Oh Christianity, Christianity, / That has grown kinder now, as in the political world / The colonial system grows kinder before it vanishes” sparked a page of readers’ letters.

But in the mind of Geoffrey Handley-Taylor, chair of the Poetry Society, Smith was “unstable” because she “sang her verses at the recent Festival Hall affair and afterwards tore her bouquet to pieces on the platform”. Britain had to wait another four decades for its first female laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, in 2009. One day, presumably, we’ll see the Whitehall emails weighing this decision. I hope the word “administrative” won’t be used.