A safe pair of hands? New Britain's new versifier could surprise us all

ANDREW MOTION'S eighth and most recent collection of poems, Salt Water, contains a wry little piece with something sharp to say about the vexed relation between poets, politics and public life.

Entitled "To Whom It May Concern" - just like a manila HMSO envelope - it begins, "This poem about ice cream has nothing to do with government, with riot, with any political scheme". It goes on to conclude, in the typically self-deprecating tones that some of Motion's poetic peers think more of a curse than a blessing, that poems don't much matter anyway. "No one will die. No licking tongues will melt like candle wax. This is a poem about ice cream. Do not cry."

Now that the Queen has approved his appointment to the Laureateship vacated by Ted Hughes - for the first time on a paid, 10-year tenure, rather than a life appointment - Motion will find that not even an ode to a raspberry ripple will escape political scrutiny.

He knows the dangers of the job, and it is hard to envisage a crueller initiation than the prospect of penning a celebration of Edward and Sophie's nuptials. John Betjeman notoriously came a cropper when the marriage of the Princess Royal to Captain Mark Phillips in 1972 prompted some of his dimmest doggerel. Yet close friends report that Motion "desperately" wanted to receive the call that has finally come.

Yesterday he said: "I feel very honoured, I think it's an extremely complex and interesting challenge for a poet. I think that I want to honour the traditional responsibilities, to write poems about Royal occasions and so on, but I am also very keen to diversify the job, or at least make those poems part of the wider national issues that I also want to write about." He added: "I want to make it more widely political."

Wise to the ways of cultural institutions he certainly is: a stalwart member of the Arts Council, and now professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia, in succession to Malcom Bradbury. But the Downing Street fixers who deemed him the safest pair of hands on offer may not find him a soft touch. An interview in the lively literary magazine Printer's Devil quotes Motion as placing himself to the left of New Labour on policy issues.

So the alleged lapdog may be saving his bark, and his bite, for a good cause. As he puts it in his sparky poem "It is an Offence" (note that mock-bureaucratic title again), "shit's shit, and what we desire in the world is less, not more, of it".

That apolitical ice-cream lyric also tells us something crucial about Motion's poetry and his likely approach to his new post. With knowing references to "One Strawberry Split. One Mivvi", it shows that Motion can mix it with the demotic, pop-cultural stuff that we now expect all poets to embrace. Yet the poem also secretly alludes to "The Emperor of Ice-Cream" by the austerely beautiful American poet Wallace Stevens - a shy genius who believed in, and practised, an introspective poetry that sought perfection in itself and turned its back entirely on the public realm.

The Laureateship may pull Motion towards the instantly accessible, Strawberry Split side of his talents. But his own lyric instincts and preferences may stay on the side of Wallace Stevens - or Philip Larkin and John Keats, the two deeply private writers whose biographies Motion wrote with tremendous flair and inwardness.

His accession means that the rumour-mill has turned a full circle. Tipped as favourite just after Hughes' death, he dropped below the horizon as other candidates - first Seamus Heaney, then Carol Ann Duffy, then Simon Armitage and finally Derek Walcott - floated into the frame. But the early tipsters had read their runes correctly. Motion's appointment continues a relentless takeover of British cultural life by the immediate postwar generation.

In poetry, as in every other craft or trade, generations rise and fall. Mostly, the movement up or down the scales of fame remains glacially slow. Then something happens to illuminate a new anatomy of power with a sudden lightning-flash. On Monday this week, Paul Muldoon (born 1951) glided unopposed into the Oxford Professorship of Poetry thanks to the discreet advocacy of Tom Paulin (born 1949). Now Andrew Motion (born 1952) has won the state's approval owing to a choice effectively made by Tony Blair (born 1953). The baby-boomers now control the signal-boxes of British poetry with the same steely - but ever-so-ironic - grip that they exert over the BBC, Downing Street and a dozen other citadels of authority.

For all its confidence in capturing the heights, this is an in-between generation. One poetic eye glances back to the restraint and formality of earlier modern masters: Motion befriended Philip Larkin while a young lecturer at Hull University in the 1970s; the young Paulin, down the road at Nottingham, specialised in Thomas Hardy. And Muldoon - then a radio producer for the BBC in Belfast - wrestled strenuously with the ghost of W B Yeats, like every other Irish poet of his age.

Echoes of Empire and war-stories obsess them - especially the Second World War, whose ending allowed their birth into a gentler world. Do they also preoccupy the bellicose Prime Minister who gave Motion the nod? One of Motion's most memorable poems describes Anne Frank's life in Amsterdam, and imagines the doomed teenager expressing "one enduring wish for chances like my own". If this is a lucky generation, it nonetheless broods constantly on its own relative good fortune.

Yet they also look to the informality, the flexibility, the media din of the affluent decades that gave them careers and reputations - before recession and Margaret Thatcher cooled the climate for ambitious arts graduates. They love long, loose-limbed narrative poems that shift in form and metre as a story unfolds. In Motion and Muldoon, the effect of changing camera-angles comes to mind. Motion's "Independence", for example, compresses an entire Attenborough-style Last-Days-of-the-Raj epic into 16 pages of dramatic quatrains.

All the same, these poet's firm foundation in the classics provides them with the surest touchstones. Their immersion in pop culture remains fitful and often fretful. Look at Tom Paulin, encountering some TV soap or Hollywood blockbuster on Late Review: gushing enjoyment one week, patrician contempt the next, with little rhyme or reason. They remain meritocratic classicists who can "do" streetwise populism at a pinch, rather than vice versa.

One event above all proclaimed the likely impact that the Motion cohort would have on British verse. In 1982, he and Blake Morrison edited the Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry - a manifesto in the form of an anthology that set out a programme that has now been amply fulfilled. The collection opens with Seamus Heaney and Tony Harrison - deities who deserved homage, rather than specific inspirations for the younger names.

Then Motion, Muldoon and Paulin rub shoulders with the likes of James Fenton (Muldoon's predecessor in the Oxford chair), Christopher Reid (who has just resigned as Faber's taste-making poetry editor) and Craig Raine, almost as influential as a teacher (at Oxford) as for his own work.

One last point needs to be made about this group's conquest of the peaks of influence. The Motion/Morrison selection showcases some marvellous work by women poets: Carol Rumens, Fleur Adcock, Anne Stevenson, the utterly bewitching Medbh McGuckian. Yet it was the men, and the men alone, who went on to snatch glittering prizes in the public sphere. In British poetry, as in British politics, the male baby-boomers still come first at feeding time.

Leading article,

Review, page 3

Podium

Review, page 4

Anne Frank Huis

by Andrew Motion

Even now, after twice her lifetime of grief

and anger in the very place, whoever comes

to climb these narrow stairs, discovers how

the bookcase slides aside, then walks through

shadow into sunlit rooms, can never help

but break her secrecy again. Just listening

is a kind of guilt: the Westerkirk repeats

itself outside, as if all time worked round

towards her fear, and made each stroke

die down on guarded streets. Imagine it -

three years of whispering and loneliness

and plotting, day by day, the Allied line

in Europe with a yellow chalk. What hope

she had for ordinary love and interest

survives her here, displayed above the bed

as pictures of her family; some actors;

fashions chosen by Princess Elizabeth.

And those who stoop to see them find

not only patience missing its reward,

but one enduring wish for chances

like my own: to leave as simply

as I do, and walk at ease

up dusty tree-lined avenues, or watch

a silent barge come clear of bridges

settling their reflections in the blue canal.

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game Of Thrones
Uh-oh, winter is coming. Ouch, my eyes! Ygritte’s a goner. Lysa’s a goner. Tywin’s a goner. Look, a dragon
tvSpoiler warning: The British actor says viewers have 'not seen the last' of his character
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave long-running series
Sport
Esteban Cambiasso makes it 3-3
premier league
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
The Etihad Stadium, home of Manchester City
premier leaguePlus updates from Everton vs Palace
News
people'I hated him during those times'
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
News
i100
News
Dame Vivienne Westwood has been raging pretty much all of her life
peopleFirst memoir extracts show she 'felt pressured' into going out with the Sex Pistols manager
Arts and Entertainment
Lauryn Hill performing at the O2 Brixton Academy last night
musicSinger was more than 90 minutes late
Sport
Lewis Hamilton in action during the Singapore Grand Prix
Formula OneNico Rosberg retires after 14 laps
News
i100
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: 'Time Heist' sees a darker side to Peter Capaldi's Doctor
News
peopleActress tells men: 'It's your issue too'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam