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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Reimagined: Gwyneth Paltrow and Toni Collette in the film adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma
books
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan
Cannes 2015Dheepan, film review
Sport
sport
News
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
music
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

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine