Andrew Motion: 'Poetry needs us to say that it matters'

Poet laureate may not be a real job, but it's just one of the tasks taken on by this charming and tireless defender of the art form

He's a nice lad," said Philip Larkin of Andrew Motion, "but I think not really tough enough – in his writing, that is. Probably," he added, in what may or may not have been a compliment, "tough enough otherwise." Well, if the young man who later became Larkin's biographer was "tough", it was clearly just as well. You need to be tough to be appointed poet laureate and have other poets denounce the appointment as a "bag of shite". You need to be tough to have your private life, and your emails, raked over, and pored over, and tittered over. And you need to be tough to have your latest poetic offering – on Prince Charles's engagement, or Prince William's birthday – pounced on and lambasted.

You need to be pretty energetic, too, to start the day with a bit of pontificating about poetry on the Today programme, and continue it with, say, a meeting at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and then one, perhaps, at the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and then, perhaps, a poetry reading in a school. Not to mention the students you have to teach as part of your day job (this, after all, is an honour, not a day job) or the online poetry archive you've started, or the tiny little matter of writing books.

You need to be tough, you need to be energetic and you need to be adept at hiding your boredom. How do I know? I know because I've done some of this stuff, in a previous incarnation, as director of the Poetry Society in the first few years of Andrew Motion's laureateship. I was so bored at the QCA, I'm afraid, that I sneaked off to Caffè Nero for coffee and cake. I was so childishly struck by the incongruities of Buckingham Palace (a military band playing Paul Simon medleys in the courtyard while we discussed a poetry competition for the Queen's golden jubilee inside) that I actually, mortifyingly, got the giggles. Motion never did. At every excruciating meeting, every oh-so-predictable discussion about poets and garrets and shouldn't-poems-rhyme?, he remained calm and polite and courteous. A harried bureaucrat might make some perfectly ordinary observation, and a pair of piercing blue eyes would rest on theirs and a mellifluous voice would declare that it knew exactly what they meant. And they would emerge feeling better, emerge marinaded in the Andrew Motion charm.

Charm, of course, is a quality often attributed to poets, but charm doesn't get you up in the morning, or get poems written, or students' work marked. And charm rarely has much to do with public service. Poets, in fact, rarely have much to do with public service. Andrew Motion believes in public service. He believes that poetry matters and that poetry needs people to say that it matters.

"We've got used," he says, "to the idea that in order to be either any good or serious as a poet, you have to put it at the centre of your life in a way that rules out more or less everything else. Poetry is at the centre of my life, too, emotionally speaking, and intellectually speaking – it's just that I'm one of those people who enjoy doing other stuff as well. I'm not precisely saying that a really good board meeting at the MLA makes me want to go and write poetry, but there is a pleasure in doing that sort of thing well. There are plenty of examples of people who have had busy lives out there in the world, trying to do good, and written very well at the same time."

We're not in Buckingham Palace, alas, but we are in its poetry equivalent, the offices of Faber and Faber. It was here (metaphorically speaking, for they've recently moved) that Eliot established a poetry list that included Auden, MacNeice, Pound and Wallace Stevens, and later Larkin (who turned down the position of poet laureate) and later Ted Hughes (who took it) and later Andrew Motion.

Motion was the first poet to take on the position as a 10-year, fixed term, five grand a year enterprise – and therefore the first laureate ever to give it up. But he was not the first poet to wear a suit (he's wearing a black one today, and a crisp white shirt), and he certainly wasn't the first poet to have a day job. Eliot worked in a bank before becoming an editor at Faber. Wallace Stevens was a lawyer. Larkin was a librarian. Like Motion, they got up early. Motion writes from six till nine or 10 every day. Yup, 6am.

"It's sacred time," he says. "I'm not much given to making shamanistic remarks about all this, but I'm a great believer in the dream life. If I can carry without spilling whatever it is that drips into my head in the night to my desk, then that's valuable." What's been dripping into his head recently, it turns out, isn't thoughts about the Queen Mother, or the future of the monarchy, but memories of his father, evocations of the rural landscape in which he grew up, and musings on war. The lyric impulse, always strong in his work, is stronger than ever in his new collection, The Cinder Path. In the past, it has been twinned with a narrative tendency that has always felt to me a little strained. Motion, at heart, is a lyric poet writing in the English Romantic tradition. He writes best about the English countryside and the yearnings of the human heart. He writes best, in fact, about what he calls, in the title poem, the "cinder path", a path that involves "taking pains with the world"; that is, paying it attention, being careful with it, but also being alert to the pain in it.

The new collection, like the last one, Public Property, is in many ways a companion volume to In the Blood, the memoir he published in 2006. This exquisite book begins with an account of the riding accident his mother had when he was 17, and ends with it too. The accident, which left his mother largely in a coma until her death 10 years later, was the event that framed his childhood, and ended it. Motion has often talked about poetry as the supreme art form, the one (as he tells me again now) "able to hook into our deepest and most urgent feelings". But for me the memoir is at least as powerful as some of the poems. Did writing about his childhood really feel like a profoundly different engagement in poetry and prose?

"No," says Motion. "I don't see very much difference between In the Blood and the poems. I was in the state of mind that was pretty much exactly like writing a very long poem. In fact, I sometimes think that I could go through and put the line breaks in. It would be sort of my Prelude." It is his Prelude, actually, his "growth" (as Wordsworth put it) "of a poet's mind". It's an incredibly sad book, but also a shocking one. I had no idea until I read it that Motion had such a parodically English upbringing, one in which huntin', shootin', fishin' and stiff upper lips featured all too prominently, and one in which being "blooded", after your first hunt, is almost as important as the blood of kith and kin.

"I felt like I had to sort of watch it when I was writing it down," he admits, "because it would so quickly look like a cartoon. At the same time, I thought, 'It happened,' and I just ought to own up to it. If anybody wants to judge me as somebody who is to do with all that, I can't stop them doing it, but I think it's pretty clear that my path and the path of all that diverged fairly early on." You can say that again. If Motion was ever expected to go into the family business (a brewery), those expectations were swiftly shattered.

After being sent, at the age of seven, to a boarding school run by a sadistic friend of his grandfather, he was sent to Radley, where he discovered poetry. He went on to read English at Oxford and then to teach at Hull, where he met Larkin. A life in what's genteelly known as "letters" followed: four biographies, critical studies of Larkin and Edward Thomas, numerous anthologies, essays, a novella and 11 collections of poetry. He has worked as an editor in publishing, and as Professor of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia and, now, Royal Holloway. His poetry has been praised by some of the finest poets in the country. Hardly the CV of some careerist chancer seeking fame and fortune.

But Motion has spent his entire life escaping from the shadow not only of his mother's death, but also of his father's disapproval. He died a few years ago and he feels, he says, "set free". Free, too, to see that the silence that felt like repression was also a kind of courage. On a visit to his parents' graves recently, he suddenly felt that his mother's "continuing present tense" in him was over. "I've written about her all my adult life," he says, "in order to keep her alive to me, and now that my father is dead, I'm able to let her go."

In a recent questionnaire, Andrew Motion was asked to come up with a catchphrase for his life. "No rest for the wicked," he chose. It was a joke, but not just a joke. "What I mean," says this man who sounds a bit like Rowan Williams, and who admits to "a God-shaped hole", "is that we are fallen and, one way in which we might raise ourselves back up again is going out into the world and not resting. Of course my life is full of things that I regret and I partly meant to acknowledge that. And if you think," he adds with a twinkle, "that I'm going to talk about them, you've got another think coming."

Well, no, he's not, and nor am I. I know about the two broken marriages and some of the loves along the way. I know that he's found love again. And I know that Andrew Motion, for all his need to be liked, and for all the flak he attracts, is a supremely talented writer, a seriously underrated poet and a hugely public-spirited man. "If I were to die," he says, "thinking that I'd written three poems that people might read after me, I would feel that I hadn't lived in vain. Great poets might expect the whole body of their work, but most of us – well, I would settle for a handful."

'The Cinder Path' (£12.99) is published this week by Faber

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