Andrew Motion is the first poet laureate to retire from the position, as opposed to dying in/from it. Here he writes about the struggles laureates face in pleasing everybody.
I’ve written eight royal poems in the past 10 years: one about the wedding of Prince Edward, one about the 100th birthday of the Queen Mother, one about her death, one about the death of Princess Margaret, one about the 18th birthday of Prince William, one (set to music) about the golden jubilee, one about the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles as she then was, and one about the Queen’s diamond wedding anniversary. I have to admit that no other writing that I’ve undertaken, of any kind, has been so difficult. The problem is partly to do with the subjects (if “subject” is quite the word for someone who is not a subject). How was I to connect with them, knowing only what newspapers tell me? How was I to steer an appropriate course between familiarity (which would seem presumptuous) and sycophancy (which would seem absurd)? And how was I to weigh and value them, knowing that a large part of the population doesn’t want there to be a royal family, or feels indifferent to it? The other part of the problem is to do with reception. In every case, after I’d written these eight poems, 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. John Betjeman (who got so fed up with it he considered resigning) and Hughes say exactly the same thing in their letters. But I am the first person to say it in public – call that a privilege of my 10-year span, if you like. My point is not simply that the response is tiresome for whoever happens to be laureate. The point is: it’s bad for poetry in general – but journalists apparently have some difficulty (or, more likely, no interest) in grasping this.