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From the archive, 11 October 1972: Betjeman won't let Poet Laureate role change him

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Following his appointment, Sir John claims his dislike of tower blocks and of developers will still come out in his work

Sir John Betjeman, officially appointed Poet Laureate yesterday, will write only when moved, and otherwise "remain a silent thrush."

He asked yesterday, on holiday at a cottage in North Cornwall: "Isn't that a beautiful remark? I just made it up. Poetry is poetry, whether you are Poet Laureate or not. It has to be felt. I don't think I shall write about public occasions unless I can feel them, it is better not to write than to write badly."

Sir John, aged 66, succeeds the late Cecil Day-Lewis, whose strenuous efforts on most public occasions earned him the traditional £70 a year plus £27 in lieu of a butt of sack, plus cheques from national newspapers.

Sir John, who had "intimations" that he might be Poet Laureate but put them out of his mind because he might be thought "too much of a flibbertigibbet" heard the good news yesterday from his secretary, who had been telephoned by "the Prime Minister's office, I think it was."

His first thought was that he would write better if he wrote about what really interested him. "I would not, for instance, be at all interested in writing a poem about the entry of Britain into the economic market, or whatever it is. Not my kind of subject. I will write poems about the country, the countryside, English buildings and towns and villages, and people in relation to them."

The well-known dislike of tower blocks and of developers will come out in his poems as Poet Laureate as heretofore. "I don't think it will change one much. I can't write other than how I feel."

Sir John thought he might well have been moved to write by such public events as the arrival of the body of the Duke of Windsor back on his native soil. The engagement of Prince Charles, say? "He is a very nice fellow. I don't know - and I don't know whether he would like it. I would have to ask him first. I'd have to send it to him."

Does the thought of what the laureateship has done to others - a sort of Alfred-Austining process - inhibit Sir John, whose previous poetry has tickled the public fancy enough to put it in the bestseller class?

"Well, Tennyson was alright, wasn't he? Tennyson's best poem, or at least one of his best, 'Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington' couldn't have been achieved if the effect was as bad as that. He was obviously terrifically moved. That is why I say you should not write unless you are moved."

The suggestion, by supporters of some of his rivals for the Poet Laureateship, that he was a "flibbertigibbet" and "too popular" did not rob him of his habitual gentleness of manner.

"What is popular is always mistrusted. I like the popular. I like the popular press. I was rather pleased that the Daily Express – you couldn't possibly mention that in the pages of the Manchester Guardian – published a poem I wrote about executives because I thought it would get a wide circulation."

Journalism, according to the new Poet Laureate, is a very good training for the sort of poetry he likes. "I think poetry should scan and rhyme when possible, and be short and memorable. Journalism and something extra? I don't know what the something extra is. Marvellous moments put down in short words. You must excuse me now, because the television people have arrived."

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