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An ex-poet laureate in the ex-empire

By: - Arts and Books Editor
/ 11:10 PM November 13, 2011

At the Singapore Writers Festival recently, Sir Andrew Motion, his wavy hair, eyebrows and lids already slightly gray but still blazing with manic Blakean fire, his patrician chin, cheek and jaw supremely sharp as to frame his face elementally like the gods of Parnassus, tall and lean and stooping politely to get to the level of his medium-height Singaporean hosts, cut a most dashing, almost Byronic figure, and if that passage is ridden with clichés, tendentious speech, and gross rhetorical crimes according to the book of the Samuel Johnsons and the guardians of the English language, then this writer pleads guilty. After all, it is not everyday that Asia gets to meet Britain’s Poet Laureate, the Empire’s chief minstrel and myth-maker, even if, strictly speaking, he’s already retired.

Yes, Motion is retired, and we’re not punning here. Andrew Motion became Poet Laureate of England in 1999 after the death of Ted Hughes, the previous incumbent, in 1998. But he stipulated he would stay for only 10 years and broke the tradition of the laureateship being with the holder for life. In 2009, he was succeeded by Scotswoman Carol Ann Duffy.

A largely honorific post, the Poet Laureate is expected to compose poems on special state events, although Tony Blair, the British prime minister in 1999, had assured Motion he would not have to do anything. Previous laureates have included Dryden, Wordsworth, and Tennyson (“He was the best,” said Motion). The salary has traditionally been alcohol and a yearly stipend. When he became poet laureate, Motion received the customary “butt of sack” and the yearly stipend was increased from £200 to  £5,000.

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Looking back now, Motion, sitting in the lobby of Singapore’s Rendezvous Hotel where this interview was conducted, might have found his 10-year rendezvous with destiny (ouch, a cliché again, and a trite pun) an altogether mixed blessing. “I ended up feeling very mixed about it,” he said. “From the start, I felt very, very honored,” he pointed out. “And a large part of it was because it was a fantastic opportunity to do something for poetry, not so much for England but for poetry. Because I was younger than most laureates, I said I would do it for poetry.”  He set up the Poetry Archive, an online collection of poets reading their work, “which has turned into an amazing success, with a little over 200,000 hits every month.” He said building the archive is “still my daily work.” He also went around the country on an educational mission, expanding the audience for poetry, easing the fears of children and even adults who find reading poems daunting: “I told them poetry may be mysterious, but not scary.”

But being a national poet has its wages, such as the sacrifice of privacy. “This is a more benign plaint and a more personal one for me: It’s very weird being changed from a more or less private person  to a more or less public person,” Motion said. “If you live in the kind of glare of endless interest about your private life, it’s not very nice.  We live in a country with a very inquisitive press. There may be merit in that because it can flush out corrupt politicians and all that, but the downside of it is, if you live in a gossipy celebrity culture, it stinks.”

Writer’s block

Motion also experienced his own version of writer’s block. “I ended up feeling very mixed about it , and this mixedness had a sort of difficult last phase, which is to say for a reason I partly understand and partly don’t, in the last couple of years of my term as laureate, I, more or less, had stopped writing poems,” he said. “So I was running around the country saying read more poetry, write more poetry, help the kids, blah blah blah, and I was not writing the bloody thing myself, so it’s a bit of a paradox to put it mildly.”

If he got over his writer’s block and wrote poetry, it was public poetry that might not be a credit to the creative imagination. “If you’ve always been commissioned (to write poetry), it may be not your first choice of subject, and what it means is that the deliberating consciousness bit of your brain has always been on overdrive, and that’s damaging to your imagination,” he explained. “It’s a much less responsible thing, and you don’t quite know where that would lead you. It does upset your creative balance, I think.”

Asked if he felt compelled to “mythologize England” in his public poems, he replied, no, “I wasn’t interested in that.”

“I felt an obligation to write a few poems about events to fit the job description,” he added. There was no formal invitation from Buckingham to write poetry, although “certainly there was a popular expectation to write it. But I tried to embed them in bigger passing concerns.” He wrote poems celebrating royal weddings (Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys Jones in 1999, and Prince Philip and Camilla Parker Bowles in 2005) as well as poems on serious topics, such as his famous elegies to the victims of the Paddington train disaster in 1999 and the death of Harry Patch, the last British veteran of the Great War.

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Of his poems on royal occasions, “I gave it my best shot.” But they displeased critics of the royalty. “They fall into an odd readership, which tends to have very strong feelings. A republican reading a poem about the royal family wouldn’t like it; it’s like a dog reading something about a cat. Problematical readership, really. Very thankless for the poet writing it.”

Motion said he hopes Duffy would continue his “revisionary” idea of the laureateship. “Being an ex-laureate, there’s no one before, I am the only one. I should be like the ex-president. I still live in the public sphere. I don’t want to get in the line of Carol Ann, I don’t want to steal her thunder, but I still would like to carry on what I was doing before. And without the particular responsibilities of being poet laureate, I feel great, I feel incredibly lucky. I did end up feeling being burdened by it and that burden is gone, so lucky me.”

Larkinesque

Since Motion also wrote the authorized biography of the late Philip Larkin (“A Writer’s Life,” Faber and Faber, and Farrar Straus Giroux, 1993), arguably the best-loved and most influential British poet of the last half of the 20th century, and perhaps well into the 21st, I had asked him early on whether he would revise his account of Larkin’s refusal of the laureateship after the death of John Betjeman in 1984, an inquiry that admittedly sought to build a grand symbolic arch to unite in miserable company poet and biographer, as if the former were telling the latter, “I told you so.”

“I don’t think I would change it very substantially,” Motion replied. “For all of his famous grumpiness and withdrawnness, Philip actually did have a very developed sense of social obligation. He would have done it very conscientiously. They were right to ask it, but he was quite right to say no as well.”

“Given his personality, which was quite withdrawn and shy as well, he would have absolutely hated it,” Motion explained. He added that for Larkin to be “running around the country, reciting poetry, doing the diplomatic, ambassadorial thing, it would have killed him.”

Larkin by then had also stopped writing poetry. “Poetry left him lying in the bottom of the glass,” said Motion. “By which, I mean to say, there’s a natural process by which poetry can leave a person. But in his case in particular, the poetry was exhilarated by drinking.”

Once more, one would like to make poetic connection between Larkin passing up the laurel and sousing up in gin and tonic after his administrative duties in the library of the University of Hull (he had been known as “the hermit of Hull”), and his biographer accepting it, but several years later finding himself in the dilemma exactly foreseen by his subject, the Muses having left him and only alcohol keeping him company.

But that’s another cliché. The only relevant details here are Motion’s complaint that he had stopped writing poetry toward the end of his term and that he had been enjoying the customary emolument of being a laureate—the bottles of sherry and alcohol that he had been getting so that when he stepped down in 2009, he had a few hundreds of them in his cellar, some of which he donated to the PEN (Poets & Playwrights Essayists, Novelists), the international federation of writers based in London. If there was any refrain about alcohol, it would be Motion’s reference to the mistake committed by the New York Times when he was appointed, describing the laureateship as a “double-edged chalice.” He gleefully mentioned it again in this interview:  “You know when you’re a journalist, you know what nonsense is in the papers sometimes, and there was a hilarious mistake actually in an American paper, and I thought they had fact checkers! . . . ‘Double-edged chalice!’ . . . It was a slip. It was a mistake that was nevertheless true.”

Seriously, however: “It sort of got to me. And then pretty much the day that I stepped down as laureate, my poems came back so I felt wonderfully liberated by it. So it ended up that for something I was very glad to do, I was very glad to stop it. So I don’t miss it.”

Back to writing

But certainly, he had already started to write the poetry that mattered to him so that by the time he stepped down, Faber and Faber was set to publish his latest collection, “The Cinder Path.”  The writer’s block appeared to have been broken when he fell in love with his Korean-American partner, Kyeong-Soo Kim, to whom he dedicated the book, and much earlier, when his father died. But going by the number of poems about his father, grief and catharsis have proven to be the imagination’s catalyst. This is not surprising since before he became poet laureate, Motion had written about his mother, who had a riding accident and was in a coma for several years until she died. “I think that’s true,” he said, referring to the remarkable fecundity of his art when it comes to grief and shadows. “Elegy is certainly what interests me.”

“The Cinder Path,” an anthology whose title poem is a clipped meditation on Spencer Gore’s 1912 neo-impressionist landscape painting of the same title of the Hertfordshire countryside. Combining two of Motion’s favorite themes, nostalgia and mortality, the poem alludes to Spencer’s physical landscape of a countryside path that, however, is built on industrial waste in order to evoke psychologically pain and death. The poet authoritatively declares he knows “what it means/ to choose the cinder path.” There’s no shorthand for death and suffering, no flinching from it: “You might say death/ but I prefer taking// pains with the world.” Everything is afire with intimations of mortality, even in the most lovely of sights: “The signpost ahead// which bears no inscription. /The elm tree withstanding// the terrible heat/ of its oily green flame.” But the mood is not merely brooding or pessimistic; there’s an undercurrent of affirmation, like the elm tree refusing to buckle under the terrible heat of its industrial pallor, or the cinder that is dead but still holds a secret flame deep in its core that may yet trigger exaltation.

The major part of the book consists of elegies for Motion’s dad. They’re the most moving of the collection. “Passing On” depicts the poet’s missing his father’s exit after he had stepped out of the hospital and took refuge in a pub half a mile from the hospital. He had just ordered gin when his mobile phone rang to announce his father had died. Going back, he found his dad’s face “wiped entirely clean,” and he could see more clearly how alike they were, “and therefore how my head will eventually look on the pillow/ when the wall opens behind me and I depart with my failings.”

Previous pages back, “Veteran” depicts a visit to his father, who fought during the Second World War: “Did he kill a man?/ Did he fire a gun/ with this crumpled finger/ which now lifts and lingers/ on the swimming glass…” He refuses to ask his father himself: “I never dare to ask/ I would rather not show/ the appetite to know// how much of his own self/ he shattered on my behalf.” But even if he asked, his father would have remained silent and spared him the horrors: “I headed off for home,/ while he still stares outside/ and waits for the parade// of shadow-shapes to end,/ his slightly lifted hand/ either showing I should stay, /or pushing me away.”

Asked whether he looks at himself as a poet of, as one catchy phrase of his poem to his mother says it, “unfinished lives,” and whether he writes poems to bring a sense of completion to such lives, Motion replied: “Yes, and something to lament and celebrate.”

“I started writing poetry at 17 around the time my mother had a very bad riding accident,” he added. “And she lay unconscious for three years, then slowly lifted back to a sort of in-between state, and after another six years, died. A very sad story. And I think for good or for ill, my idea of what my poetry is, came to in a way that was sharply defined by what was happening to her. The for-ill is, I find it extremely difficult to write about other things and everything else besides. Breakfast, it doesn’t turn my blood. If you tell me to write a poem about mortality, now you’re talking. So there’s a for-ill. But luckily, feeling that my subject matter is time and the passage of time, that’s a very great subject, it might even touch about breakfast after all. In that way I want to write poems about mortality, but I don’t want to do it in a way that’s miserable, as we shall see. You never quite know what poets are capable of until the moment before he dies, then you can see his shape. I will be 60 next year, so I can see some things that were obscure to me earlier on. As I get older my own sense of mortality intensifies, the subject that has interested me has come more and more into intensity and it’s a good thing to feel. I feel closer to my subject, so I think you’re right.”

Empire writes back in ‘Englishes’

But for now, in Singapore, the dreadful topic of death was further off, and the subject was English and how writers of the former empire have mastered and even colonized it back in some form of vassal’s vendetta. In one of the panel discussions of the 14th Singapore Writers Festival, organized by the National Arts Council, Motion had interacted with Singapore’s own poet laureate, Edwin Thumboo, a Chinese-Indian who himself embodies the pan-Asian mix of Singapore and, since he writes in English, the island-state’s colonial past,  independent present, and assertive future as well.

“What amazes me is that Asian writers in English who were of my generation have a much more detailed knowledge of the tradition of English literature than Brits or Americans,” Motion said. He explained that while the language might have been “imposed on them by colonial history, but within it they’re able to feel they can establish something more precisely their own, so there’s a keen of sense of bearing that they’re able to produce within it what some linguists would establish as a postcolonial language, and that’s very encouraging to see.”

“As time goes by,” he added, “[Asian writers will] produce a greater diversity of writing in English, or Englishes, which, of course, is an unparalleled development. There’s a great deal of good in the diversity that’s happening, a way of people asserting themselves and having more self-confidence.”

Asked whether he was not afraid that the language development might lead to hybridity and Babelism, to a betrayal of the poet’s mission, which is to purify the language of the tribe, as Mallarme would have it, Motion was very balanced but firm: “Although I do think poets have a responsibility to keep language on its toes, and not to let it slither off to a sort of doublespeak, or the non-speak of politicians and bureaucrats, I also think there’s a danger to that remark since it implies there’s only one language and one dialect; manifestly there isn’t.”

“For writers my age, the challenge is to break down the barriers between different ideas of poetry, and instead encourage people to think that we live in a broad church of poetries,” he explained. “The next challenge is try to find a way to speak with appropriate sympathy and understanding and interest about poetries that are not perhaps precisely your own, while at the same time, with courage and centeredness, to be able to say that in the great canopy of different poetries, the one that means most to me is my own.”

Motion himself is seeking to reinvent language by giving speech to the dead. He has written a play in prose, “Incoming,” about a soldier killed in Afghanistan, his grieving widow, and their young son. Motion has taken inspiration for the widow from Sally Thorneloe, the widow of Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Thorneloe of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, the highest-ranking British officer killed on active service for more than 25 years. He died when his armored vehicle was destroyed by a Taliban attack in 2009. The play is highly critical of Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan, although Motion has called it in press reports as “pro-soldier.”  “Why do Brits keep fighting?” he said in Singapore. “What’s wrong with us? We’re a very belligerent country; you don’t think we are, but we are. You think we’re all sweetness and light, but we’re not.”

But Motion is more interested in the drama and humanity of the situation than the politics of wars: “What is it like to say goodbye, and how do you say goodbye to the one you love? I think most of us at this stage in life know the answer, which is we don’t get over it or move on. What we do is try to find a way to keep the person in our minds so we can take a look at him without bursting into tears; it’s the only way to keep the person alive, a kind of meditation on the dead.”

Return to ‘Treasure Island’

If he’s not giving voice to the dead, Motion is spinning a sequel to his childhood favorite, Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.” He said Stevenson himself could have come up with his own sequel to the novel (“It’s a bit of a boy’s book, but fantastically a good one”), except that he died young. “Being a thrifty Scottish person, I think he left open doors in TS that, had he lived longer, he himself might have come back to,” Motion said, letting this writer in on Part II:

“So, Long John silver survives; all the silver are left on the island and they’ve become a loot. They take the gold bits and pieces of money, the brass and silverware, and at the end of the book at the Hispania they sort of disappear at the bend of the world. Then come bursting out of the jungles the bad they’ve left behind, really kinda bad people, the marooned, so what happened to them?

“And I thought it would be very interesting, I mean, dangerous and high risk, but interesting to move the story a generation on to see what we don’t ask. We don’t know the precise date. Stevenson doesn’t say. But the guess is early 1760s, so pre-enlightenment, pre-romantic context. So what would it be like to send back people who think that they’re enlightened and have them discover a frozen piece of the old world, which is the maroons? So it’s the children who go back.”

Specifically the daughter of Long John Silver and the son of Jim Hawkins, the original protagonist, who go back. Motion explained his invention: “Stevenson says Long John’s got a wife. In about two lines in the middle of the book, he says very glancingly that she’s a woman of color, so she’s presumably someone he’s picked up in the Caribbean. They had a daughter, her name is Naty.”

For his part, Jim Hawkins had come back to England and gotten married, but his wife had died bearing their child. “So Jim Junior and Naty go back to the island,” Motion said. “And when they arrive on the island, they get there by night and they see strange fires burning in the village. It turns out that the island has been crashed into by a slave ship, and that the three maroons have re-enslaved the slaves, and they’re running a kind of dystopian nightmare state, a very Conradian state.” Jim Junior and Naty have intended to “just sort of pop out and get the silver and go home again; but now they have a more complicated mission, which is to free the slaves and reestablish order, and (here Motion paused), dot-dot-dot.”

“So it’s a book about imperialism, not a children’s book, but I do hope some children would enjoy reading it,” Motion said. “There are sword fights, there’s adventure… and poisonous snakes.” The poet added he enjoyed writing it with his family. “My daughter had an absolutely brilliant idea, she was a tremendous help when I was just starting to write it,” he said. “‘Dad, where’s the island?’ Because we don’t really know where the island is. She asked is it anywhere near the Galapagos.. No, in the Caribbean, the other side of the isthmus of Galapagos. So it could have animals that don’t exist anywhere else at all, peculiar animals. So it has a dodo-like creature, which they’re busy exterminating of course, called the duda; a giant squirrel the size of a large dog that kind of crashes through the trees, spooky little animals.”

The rush of words betrayed Motion’s excitement. He said “Incoming” will soon be shown in a theater festival and read in Parliament; his sequel to “Treasure Island” will be coming out in April; and his collection of war poems will be issued by Faber when he turns 60 in October.

“I have felt a new rush of energy,” said Motion. “We’ll see how long that lasts.” Hopefully it would last far more than the 10 years he had spent as England’s poet laureate. “Great to do it,” he said, referring to the laureateship. But then again, “Great to be myself again.”

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