The Poet-Laureateship has, if not unerringly, then at least very often, been bestowed on someone only adjacent to the real poetic achievement of their time: on Laurence Eusden, not on Alexander Pope; on Colley Cibber, not on Thomas Gray; on William Whitehead, not on Samuel Johnson; on Robert Southey, not on Keats, Byron or Shelley; on Robert Bridges, not on T. S. Eliot. Of the 25 Laureates, only four — Dryden, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Ted Hughes — are of the first importance as poets.
Over others, such as Henry Pye, history has drawn a compassionate veil. And even the great have sometimes succumbed to the Laureateship's torpedo-touch of dullness.
The appointment of Carol Ann Duffy was hailed as a reinvigoration of this venerable institution. The first woman, the first (declared) homosexual, a poet who proclaimed her advanced views — air doesn't come fresher than this.
One of her most recent poems was published in the Mirror, on the occasion of the injury which ruled David Beckham out of contention for a place in the England team at this summer's World Cup. It pursues a comparison of Beckham with Achilles, the great warrior without whom the Greeks could not — so it had been foretold — win Troy, but who, like Beckham, was vulnerable in his heel. Duffy's short, well-turned poem begins in the mythic past, before fusing that past with the sporting present. Odysseus's voyage to unearth the hidden youth forms a bridge into both Troy and the present:
But when Odysseus came,
With an athlete's build, a sword and a
He followed him to the battlefield,
The crowd's roar,
And it was sport, not war,
His charmed foot on the ball...
But then his heel, his heel, his heel...