SENTINEL POETRY (ONLINE) #42
The International Journal of Poetry & Graphics...since 2002
MAY 2006 ISSN 1479-425X Editor: Amatoritsero Ede
Editorial: The Professional Poet continued from Previous page
For centuries since Charles II a laureate was installed for life. Randomly one can point to Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spencer, Ben Johnson and John Dryden as notable poet laureates of the Medieval, Tudor, Stuart and early Modern periods respectively. It was only from the early Modern Period that there existed a formal office of Poet Laureate in England, otherwise poets were simply adopted or employed by the King as part of his retinue.
The existence of court poets is not confirmed to the West alone. In fact it probably has it roots in oral cultures and is as old as society in its rudimentary stages. Such that in Oral African cultures the court poet was an integral part of royal court life; the only difference here to the medieval, early modern and modern European cultures being that the African court poet was a performer in the sense that he verbalises rather than writes down – even with the accompaniment of a simple musical instrument or a lone horn – the praises of the King as handed down from generation of other court poets or traditional lore. Modern African traditional performance poets, like Lanre Adepoju, now employ a complex of guitars, traditional drums and other modern instruments in rendering traditional poetry. The main point here is that like the old English poets, ancient and modern traditional African poets employ poetry in praise of the monarch and are a normal part of official and unofficial court-life.
Were these then professional poets? The answer to that is complex and debatable. Clearly the fortunes of the old poets of the western written tradition were not as strongly dependent on the English kings as much and as completely as that of traditional African poets were tied to the purse strings of African Monarchs. We do know that some English poets, for example William Morris, William Mason, Thomas Gray, Sir Walter Scott and recently in 1984 Philip Larkin, did reject the poet laureateship of England. But is such a life possible today for a poet; such a life of waiting for the crumbs, grain and dribble from lordly tables? For one the poet’s relationship to the audience is much more distant today than in the days of active sponsoring monarchies and direct private patronage.
In the late 19th century Europe the relationship of the poet to the public became mediated through the phenomenon of the literary market due to the rise of the middle class. Direct personal patronage dwindled. Poets such as Wordsworth began to complain about public dictates on the themes of their work. It was the period when the term intellectual first entered the dictionary and such new-fangled diction as genius sprung up. The image of a ‘romantic artist’, who was self-willed and self-directed and above the vagaries of the private ‘control’ of the court, money-ed gentry or a general soliciting public was created in the public domain. Contemporary literary culture has inherited this apparent independence in the figure of the poet; apparent it is only because other patronage systems – like prize-awarding institutions, writers’ organisation, book clubs and enduring national laureateships in the west – have been put in place by civil society. To what extent does such institutions control what the poet produces? First we should look at the possibility of self-subversion inherent in ancient Roman patronage system and then relate it to the same syndrome today.
Trevor Fear quoting Carson (1993, 75) mentions “the dilemma of the artist in a money economy”. He makes particular reference to Ovid’s deployment of the trope of pimping and prostitution with regard to poet and the poem respectively. According to Fear, Leslie Kurke suggests that Pindar tried to negotiate a safe passage between money and corruption in investing his own promotion by the aristocracy with a noble, gentile and sensible use of money. Fear notes that Horace was also anxious and tried in his poems, Epistles 1.17 and 1.18 to represent the poet as matrona fidelis and not levis. Self-serving rhetoric this must have been, especially if the poet abdicates his duty to the society as social critic and the rallying point for cultural progress. Pindar projected the idea that the roman Nobility was a kind friend merely! Well, we know about the brutality of the roman domination of those spaces it conquered. Were the poets guilty or not of complicity? The model should be that of the African traditional court bard or griot, who not only sings the King’s praises but also daubs him in slime and spittle – although through the subterfuge of intricate linguistic decoys – when it is necessary. Akintunde Akinyemi, in a study of the satirical impregnation of Yoruba court poetry, shows how the paid-piper still piped to his patron’s disadvantage with the use of sophisticated literary tropes. When it was necessary the Oba or King was the subject of ridicule or criticism by his court bard. Can this be said for the professional poet of today? – Yes, if the livelihood of a poet depends on prizes, Nobel or Ignoble, awards, laureateships, grants, institutional-cum academic appointments based on his oeuvre alone, then he is a professional poet; he subverts self and his art – unless he is still capable of dispensing his usual critical duties. The professional poet is forced to sing the tunes expected of him