Andrew Motion: Poetry and life

Updated Monday, 30th June 2003
Poet Laureate and OU honorary graduate Andrew Motion spoke with Ozone about his life in the spotlight and the role poetry has to play in the modern world

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Andrew Motion

They read good books, and quote, but never learn
A language other than the scream of rocket-burn.
Our straighter talk is drowned but ironclad:
elections, money, empire, oil and Dad.

Your recent poem Causa Belli is critical of the government's stance towards Iraq. Do you feel any personal conflict between speaking out in this way and holding a post that is very much part of the establishment?

I said when I was appointed that as far as I was concerned the job was only worth doing if it was more than simply writing poems about the royal calendar. For me it was only worth it if I could do something quite definite and serious.

I spend a great deal of time going around schools and academies of all sorts waving the flag for poetry, lobbying the government about how poetry might be better protected and promoted within the curriculum, and trying to establish an archive of poets reading their own work. On the writing side, I have tried to respect the tradition of writing about royal events, but I also try to write poems that are part of a larger national narrative, hence the poems I wrote for the TUC about liberty, for Childline about bullying and, in a sense, the one about the Iraq business.

I don't feel I need a precedent to write such things as Laureate, even though they are there. The most famous is Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade, which has a critical dimension to it as well.

How do you draw the line between the poems you write as Laureate and those you write as a common poet?

It's difficult, but as time goes by I find I worry less about what the difference might be. When somebody is writing for themselves they try out various ideas, verse forms, tones of voice and angles of entry into the subject. When you get the green-light moment from yourself, you go ahead and write.

If a sympathetic idea arrives from outside, or from public prompting, much the same process happens. But if you don't get that moment, it's a mistake to try and force it. You end up writing something that is too deterministic and over mechanised. In some sense I have to convince myself that these are real poems that want to get written, whether the idea was mine or someone else's.

How do you feel about taking on the banal subjects that occupy so much of our lives, such as football or supermarkets?

It's difficult to say. Theoretically, any poet would want to feel nothing human is alien. But if I also want to write poems that feel authentic and not merely opportunistic, there are bound to be subjects I simply can't write about. Not that I don't enjoy watching football, but it's possible I don't have anything to say about it in a poem.

The title of your latest collection is Public Property. Is this how you now feel about your work and life as Poet Laureate?

I wanted to suggest a conversation along the lines of the one we have just been having, which is that there need not be much difference between personal and public poems. I do feel my life has become public in a peculiar and sometimes dismaying way, but also in a way that I feel can have value.

The fact of the matter is that I am able to speak up for the things that I care about in a way that would have been difficult before. Causa Belli wouldn't have been on the front page of the Guardian if I was just Joe Soap.

So would you say you have enjoyed the past four years as Laureate?

I have enjoyed the opportunity to speak up about the things I care about, the opportunity to fly the flag for poetry and the access it has given me to the people who really can make changes to the curriculum. This is more for other people to say, but I think on the whole it has been surprisingly good for my poems because it has made me turn my face more fully to the world.

The downside is the feeling that my life is no longer quite my own, and being invaded by the press about things which are of no public interest whatsoever. That can be tough.

With the flood of information and opinion available to us, what role do you think poetry has to play in modern world?

That's a huge question. To give you a quick answer, I think it has the opportunity to engage our deeper feelings more readily than any other art form. I think its voice needs to be heard alongside those of politicians, political commentators and historians, so that the emotional and intellectually concise quality it has can be cherished and learnt from. I think poetry is a hotline to our deeper feelings. If we neglect it, we do so at our peril.

A conversation about poetry should be about poetry.

And how would you describe the health of poetry in the UK today?

On the one hand I think it's probably very healthy. It has a high profile, is cared about and has a good-sized audience. I also think a lot of the misapprehensions, about it being recherché or irrelevant, have diminished.

On the other hand, it needs protecting and promoting, particularly within schools. It must not be allowed to be seen as something that is arcane, but at the same time it must be allowed to be difficult. I think it's also important not to make it part of a narrow political agenda.

If you have a group of disaffected children in a classroom, don't use poetry as a way of prising open conversations about diversity or whatever. A conversation about poetry should be about poetry.

Who are the contemporary poets you enjoy reading?

Seamus Heaney is there at the top of the Premier division. The other two Irish poets I would mention are Paul Muldoon and Derek Mahon.

Of the English poets, Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy and James Fenton. They are the three I especially value.

But it's important to stress that we live in a culture where it is probably more appropriate to speak of poetries rather than poetry. I don't say we shouldn't have the courage to say we prefer X to Y, but we must realise there is no central, established notion of what poetry should or shouldn't be anymore.

What are your hopes for your next six years as Poet Laureate?

I would like to write poems that will last longer than the times during which they are written. I'd also like be part of some change in the way that poetry is dealt with in schools and to get this archive up and running. I think it's crucial for our heritage and could be important as an educational tool as well.

Do you believe poets are born or made?

Both. You have to allow for something which, if you are talking about Keats you call genius, and if you're talking about anybody less wonderful you can call a gift of some description.

There is also a colossal amount any writer can do in working incredibly hard, continually revising, plugging away and accepting that if you wrote a good poem yesterday you won't necessarily write a good one today.

In my experience of the creative writing programme at the University of East Anglia, there is no question that even if people aren't writing masterpieces by the end of the year they all are writing better than they were at the beginning.


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