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November 19, 1998

UK searches for poet laureate
Parliament indicates that biathlon is likely event

LONDON — With the sudden death of Ted Hughes, England has begun the search for its next poet laureate. All over Great Britain, poets are limbering up their pens and sharpening their switchblades as Parliament debates how the new poet laureate should be selected.

In 1984, the Tory-controlled legislature chose the modern pentathlon as the means for replacing the aging Sir John Betjeman. However, many poets complained that the equestrian event unfairly rewarded those who had grown up in rural settings. The fencing round of the selection process also caused problems — Stephen Spencer repeatedly jabbing Philip Larkin in the buttocks with his sabre left an ugly impression on voters, and it was decided to abandonpoet.jpg (29502 bytes) the pentathlon in favor of a less controversial method.

Though it is only rumor, many believe that this time around poets will be chosen for their prowess at the biathlon. The winter sport, which combines long distance skiing and sharpshooting, is a perfect choice for this year’s hopefuls suggested British literary historian Sir Gerald Randall, because it provides a level playing field.

"None of our poets will be any good at it," said Randall. "That’s the draw. They’ve never skied, they don’t own guns. It will reward the best poet, and not the best biathlete. That’s the draw."

Whatever the event, leading candidates were steeling themselves for a grueling selection process. Early favorite James Fenton talked about the difficulties of competing with other great poets.

"There’s a lot of trash talking, yeah," said Fenton. "‘Your mama’s a ho.’ ‘You only write in form.’ The first time I went through the process, back in the ‘60s, W.H. Auden slipped up to me right before I was about to start my floor routine — the event that year was gymnastics — and accused me of flat imagery and poor line breaks in my recent translation of Hesiod. He also said my sonnets were derivative and uninspired, Miltonic in the worst way, and that I couldn’t enjamb my way out of a paper bag.

"Needless to say, I blew the routine," said Fenton. "I got him back though. I spiked his brandy with Percoset before he did the parallel bars."

Officials close to the selection process acknowledged that, poets being what they were, whatever event they chose was bound to get pretty rough. "That’s why, if we do go ahead and choose the biathlon," said one official, "we’re not using real bullets in the gun."

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