National Poetry Day
Andrew Motion on the private muse
Thursday 10 October 1996
However, we are living in a period of poetry in which interest in narrative techniques, in anecdotal writing, in direct political comment, are peculiarly developed. Even though the modernists in general, and TS Eliot in particular, are under fire at the moment, we have to acknowledge that this change has a lot to do with them. The changes that they wrought in English poetry are permanent and unassailable. "The Waste Land" was not just a poem that turned conventional ideas of pastoral on their head, it made room for material that had traditionally been the prerogative of fiction. Shelf space was made for everything, from soda water to suspenders.
More recent poets - Auden, MacNeice, Larkin - continued to expand our sense of what can be included in a poem: the detritus of recognisably contemporary life. The notion that poetry might exist primarily to help us endure our existence has been diversified. Poetry rinses out and makes us see the familiar world more clearly. Inevitably, this has meant that poets have had to devise a language that is flexible enough to accommodate clutter, language that is both urgent and personal but not specifically reserved for poetry. To that extent, the walls between poetry and prose - and between poetry and song lyrics - have crumbled.
In the past few years, poetry's profile in our culture has become significantly higher. Poetry appears on the Tube, it pops up in newspapers. Poets are regular visitors to schools and academies. And yet, and yet... However much time poets spend in the classroom, however often poems turn up on television or the Underground, we need to remember that poetry is, in a sense, written in stolen time. It is against the grain. It is inherently subversive. It often arrives at truths by telling them slant, as Emily Dickinson might say. It does not often argue that a thing is true but allows us to realise the truth by making us, in Keats's great phrase, "feel it on our pulses". Whenever we talk about the need to promote poetry, or to celebrate a carnival such as National Poetry Day, we must insist on this sense that it comes at orthodoxies from an oblique angle.
Sometimes very oblique: poetry communicates a vital part of its meaning by other than rational means. The great American poet Robert Frost had a wonderful idea about "the sound of sense". To illustrate this, he told a story of walking down a lane in Gloucestershire with Edward Thomas, and shouting at a man cutting corn in the middle of a field. The man was too far away to hear exactly what Frost was saying. The farmworker shouted something back that Frost could not quite hear either. "You see," he turned to Thomas, "we know what he means, even though we can't understand what he's said."
We do not often go to a poem to collect information, or to discover something that we didn't know beforehand. We go to a poem to be jilted out of our complacency, to rediscover things we had forgotten we knew. This is the sense in which it is uniquely private. It is also the means by which it defines and discovers its public.
Andrew Motion was talking to Adrian Turpin
Andrew Motion is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia and vice-chairman of the Literature Panel of the Arts Council of England. A poet and biographer, he is currently researching the life and work of John Keats
Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beachart
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Pro-Russian rebel 'admits to shooting down plane'
- 2 Israel has discovered that it's no longer so easy to get away with murder in the age of social media
- 3 Israel-Gaza conflict: The myth of Hamas’s human shields
- 4 Amy Winehouse unpublished 2004 interview: ‘Ten years from now I’ll be 30, so I’ll maybe have one baby’
- 5 Dutch paedophile club to fight their ban at the European Court of Human Rights
Immigration Street meeting sees local residents demand producers 'go away' and Channel 4 scrap planned series
Hercules, review: Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson takes centre stage in preposterous film
Fight Club 2: Chuck Palahniuk sequel is a 'meta-fictional comment on the cultural response to the original'
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Vladimir Putin is given 'one last chance' to end hostilities in Ukraine
The 'scroungers’ fight back: The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Ukrainian military jet was flying close to passenger plane before it was shot down, says Russian officer
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Massive rise in sale of British arms to Russia
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: victims’ bodies bundled in black bags and loaded onto trains