A safe pair of hands? New Britain's new versifier could surprise us all
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Thursday 20 May 1999
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.
Review, page 3
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.
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