Public Property by Andrew Motion

Taxpayers' poet explores his private sector
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The Independent Culture

Andrew Motion has chosen a wry title for his first collection since being appointed Poet Laureate. He's the taxpayers' poet, open to slings, arrows and any other objects we care to chuck. But the truth is, his poetry is very quiet, rather introspective – even in the Laureate poems – and as preoccupied with loss and childhood landscape as you might expect of anyone turning 50. It's his jubilee, too, and he is celebrating it quietly, mostly with memories of those who have left him.

Andrew Motion has chosen a wry title for his first collection since being appointed Poet Laureate. He's the taxpayers' poet, open to slings, arrows and any other objects we care to chuck. But the truth is, his poetry is very quiet, rather introspective – even in the Laureate poems – and as preoccupied with loss and childhood landscape as you might expect of anyone turning 50. It's his jubilee, too, and he is celebrating it quietly, mostly with memories of those who have left him.

The most telling (and by far the best) poem sets out for Margate to look for Keats, and winds up on the Kent marshes with Magwitch. That's what you get with Motion: a slow, uncertain ramble, so busy observing detail that you're not quite sure where you'll end up, or if you've got there.

Motion does, literally, describe walks. He takes a midnight walk; goes "walkabout" as a child; walks to a water-tower he remembers from childhood; describes a painting as "a long green track... working its way back/ to old England/ that does not exist any more"; compares the Queen Mum to a tightrope artist; remembers his father-in-law off on his "evening round"; strolls from Richmond to Westminster "just for the pleasure of light/ sluicing my head."

Almost the entire collection is a thoughtful, sensitive dawdle through his past and present, through childhood pain and the loss of the previous generation. Even the poem you might call the collection's obvious joke, about the Light Brigade's mascot terrier, is understated, about the dog walking towards the guns while horses and men collapse around him, before "skittering back".

The Laureate poems included – certainly the two on the Queen Mother – improve on second acquaintance, and in this company. They are miles more inventive than any previous Laureate has achieved, and pretty well do the impossible: dramatise a myth, without discarding it or accepting it. Hughes and Betjeman did not come close in this context. (Public Property includes an unexceptional prose homage to Hughes, which I'd have left out. I'd have also excluded Serenade, an uncharacteristically poor poem about the horse that later threw his mother, causing her early death. It would have made remarkable prose instead).

Motion is a pleasantly accessible poet. "Public Property: Trespassers Welcome!" could be his motto. His strength is in the acuity of his images, especially of nature ("the drowsy fuzz of elders... lush pads of ivy-leaf"), and in the frank way he observes grief. He is a consoling poet.

However, many poets deal with losing childhood, parents, friends, and Motion isn't in the same league as, for instance, Carol Ann Duffy, who explored similar experiences in The Other Country. She can do what Motion can't: write a short, memorable poem, or even several.

Motion is often mentioned as being like Edward Thomas. That's an accurate compliment. But where is his Adlestrop? His Lights Out? His writing, even when exceptional, never seems to produce individual gems. He is intelligent, elegiac, composed, formally assured – but never quite startling. The Magwitch poem (Self Help) is the exception.

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