Australia needs an activist poet laureate – here’s why

Posted on 14 Mar 2023

By Denis Moriarty

So Australia is now to have a poet laureate.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese made the announcement as part of a generally well-received speech on Labor’s national cultural policy, and there seems to be a general feeling that one shouldn’t look a $286 million gift horse in the mouth.

To be sure, ‘looking a gift horse in the mouth’ is a thoroughly outmoded metaphor, in that almost no Australians now living have ever checked a horse’s age before buying it by seeing whether its corner teeth were square. Our language is full of such improbable survivals, where something that was an important part of our ancestors’ lives has wasted away to a linguistic tic. As have poet laureates.

The first King Charles set up the position of poet laureate in 1668 because at the time poetry was at the peak of the cultural pyramid, an essential element of elite education. Its practitioners had influence, and kings didn’t want them sniping from outside the tent.

If you didn’t write poetry back then, mind you, your options were somewhat limited. There were plays, though the government kept a close eye on censorship, but the novel was in its infancy. Film, television and TikTok weren’t in competition for the available talent.

I say ‘talent’, but the Laureateship isn’t just about talent, still less genius. John Milton never cracked it, even after writing Paradise Lost, and Charles in fact damn nearly beheaded him, though more for his pamphlets than his poetry. In the 20th century T.S. Eliot missed out, probably more from his modernism than his vicious anti-Semitism, and Philip Larkin turned it down, avoiding nasty arguments over his racism and sexism. Great poets don’t have to be nice people.

The Laureate ranks do, admittedly, include William Wordsworth and Alfred Tennyson, both very nice people,but it’s hard to say that either of them had their reputation enhanced by the appointment. Wordsworth was bitterly reproached for supporting an unpopular government, and Tennyson’s 1859 call for volunteers to fight the French (‘Let your reforms for a moment go! Look to your butts, and take good aims!’) is not generally regarded as one of the highest achievements of either the poet or the government of the day, particularly as the feared French invasion failed to eventuate.

English laureates, of course, are expected to mark national moments such as wars and royal weddings and investitures and funerals. It’s a part-time job, a patriotic token.

And Australian laureates?

They’re to be chosen by an as-yet-uncreated body called Writers Australia. Who the voters will be, and how they will balance poetic afflatus against personal wretchedness in their choice from the field, we don’t yet know.

Still, we can start putting together a position description. Let’s leave out the royal weddings – with any luck all that will be irrelevant soon, anyway – and even the odes on civic events. Let’s not fret too much about whether the incumbent is going to use their notoriety to knife the government in public at the first opportunity. What do we want them to do?

Paul Kelly
Paul Kelly performing in 2015. Picture: Bruce Baker/Flickr (tap for credit details)

The British laureate isn’t expected to do much except write, and set a good example to aspiring scribblers. The Americans have been more demanding. They see themselves as active propagandists for poetry. Variously, they’ve held conferences and workshops, set up contests, met with students, and pushed poem posters into airports, supermarkets, and hotel rooms, along with the Gideons Bible. Back in 2003, one sent a poem to every high school in America for every day of the year. That would be nice, particularly if someone at the other end read them.

We need an activist. We may need a miracle worker. Poetry has never been among the top ten concerns of the average Australian. We have great poets, but our most cited author is still Dorothea McKellar rather than, say, Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa. I’m an old bugger, and I’d like to see Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly get a couple of years in the gig, but we may need to jump straight to the rap generation and tap someone like Hani Abdile or Ziggy Ramo on the shoulder (and just to show I’m putting my money where my ears are, all these poets have performed at our annual conference, Communities in Control).

Every Australian should write poetry, as well as read it. Poetry is access to an aspect of humanity that sparks in us all. It’s a welcome to a different country.

Denis Moriarty is group managing director of, a social enterprise that helps the country's 600,000 not-for-profits.

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