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Boyd Tonkin: The passions – and the pains – of poetry

The Week In Books

In terms of electors per column centimetre in the British media, how many Indian voters equal one Oxford MA? This newspaper, I'm happy to report, gave ample coverage to India's general elections. Elsewhere, the ballots cast in person by 426 – yes, 426 – Oxford graduates in the contest to become Professor of Poetry easily outweighed the planet's greatest epic of democracy.

For several UK media outlets, you would need to load around one million souls on the Indian end of the seesaw to balance a single poetry-fancying Oxonian. If only this yawning gulf in attention stemmed from a national passion for poetry. It comes, as we all know, from a ravenous appetite for rehashed gossip about the sex lives –or alleged sex lives – of strangers whose work most pundits will never have read.

Curiously, an Indian runner in the Oxford race proved one bright spot in a murky affair. Starting as a rank outsider, the poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra polled 30 per cent of the votes cast. As his backers Amit Chaudhuri and Peter McDonald comment, Mehrotra proved to be "an exemplary nominee... whose dignity and merit augmented the possibilities of a difficult election".

At the moment it seems far easier in Britain to find a copy of the History of Indian Literature in English that Mehrotra edited than to access his poetry. That should change now. His poem "Mirza Ghalib in Old Age" looks back at the famously impecunious life of the great Urdu bard and dwells, aptly enough, on the way that poetic lustre never pays the bills: "In every post came/ Friends' verses to correct,/ But his rosary-chain/ Was a string of debts." As Yeats put it in "The Choice", "In luck or out the toil has left its mark:/ That old perplexity an empty purse,/ Or the day's vanity, the night's remorse."

The Oxford scrap exposed plenty of vanity, and perhaps left some remorse. Prurient snowstorms of innuendo have struck the reputations of those who dare to commit verse in Britain - this curtain-twitching land of suburban Salems - ever since the country seethed with fake indignation over what wicked Lord Byron did to his poor wife. These things always pass, and poetry slinks back to the seldom-visited "valley of its making" - as Auden ruefully said.

Andrew Motion, the now-former Poet Laureate, had his own share of ragging in the red-tops back in the day. Who cares now? Who cared then? We – and he - should mind that the whoops of glee that greeted Carol Ann Duffy's selection as his successor meant that some commentators have been happy to swallow rival poets' dismissal of Motion as some cosy pastoral throwback.

Not true; now, or ever. His new volume, The Cinder Path (Faber, £12.99), bristles with strong and subtle verse. Motion keeps its own voice true and clear as he treads nimbly through a broad swathe of forms and themes. Yes, the natural world glints and heaves with deep feeling in this heir to Hardy or Edward Thomas, from the balcony on an island holiday where "the sea-smell mixed/ with thyme and oleander throws a drape/ insidious as mist across the drop/ of roofs and aerials" right through to the spring week of a father's death, "just missing the first thick gusts of rain and the last/ of the giddy apple blossom falling into your footprints".

But, across its many landscapes, this collection smells of war and mourning, in the poems inspired by 1914-18 veteran Harry Patch or the slow emotional crescendo of its final sequence. This invokes a lost father's memory and – deploying a mixed battery of stanzas and metres – leads it gently back to D-Day and the aftermath, when "fear, grief, boredom, pain/ have found out how to fade/ into the later life he made".

About the symbolism of the title poem – which evokes a painting by Spencer Gore – Motion writes that "you might say death/ but I prefer taking/ pains with the world". Yes, poets take infinite pains with their world. That, perhaps, is the one sin a greedily consuming culture can't forgive them.

P.S.Colombian novelist Evelio Rosero couldn't make it to the packed and Champagne Taittinger-fuelled party at Tate Britain that saw his terrific novel The Armies, in Anne McLean's radiant translation, win the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Yet he did write a speech for the occasion. Charmingly, he returned our compliment by running through the British books that helped make him a writer. Rosero saluted Defoe's Robinson Crusoe – although, as an adolescent reader, he did ask why the stranded loner never masturbated - and Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. And Conan Doyle's sleuth led a boy in distant Bogotá to scrutinise his parents' guests and tell them what they had just done. From Borges to Alberto Manguel, Jo Soares (author A Samba for Sherlock) and Rosero: Sherlock Holmes's Latin American afterlife deserves a casebook of its own.