Motion defends his right to sell millennium poem to newspaper

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"I CAN'T LIVE on pounds 5,000 a year and a butt of sack. I do have to earn a living," Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate, said yesterday. He was defending himself against accusations that he has brought his post into disrepute by selling his "official" millennium poem to a newspaper for what his agent described as "a lot of money".

Motion, who was hailed as the "people's poet" when he was appointed to succeed Ted Hughes in May, was angry at reports in The Times that he had made an exclusive deal with The Mail on Sunday for the only poem he is likely to write to commemorate 2000.

Although he did not deny he had sold the poem exclusively to the newspaper, Motion said the role of Poet Laureate carried no specific obligations and therefore anything he wrote could not be described as "official". He said he had been asked by the paper to write a poem some time ago.

"If my poems were commissioned by the Palace or by Downing Street and therefore became official then I would be nothing more than a lackey," he said yesterday. It would be "damaging to my reputation and to my imagination" to have to work in this way, he said, adding: "This poem will be available everywhere the day after it has appeared in The Mail on Sunday so it will be there for everyone."

In a letter to today's Times, Motion said he regarded his role as a job rather than an honour. "When I was appointed last May, it was made clear to me that the post carried no specific obligations at all... most former laureates had regarded it largely as an honour, but I see it as being a job which has two parts: doing [teaching, advisory work and so on] and writing.

"As far as this second part is concerned, I intend to produce poems to mark events in the royal calendar as and when I can... But I stress again, there is no formal obligation on me to write anything - and no obligation to release anything that I do write to every newspaper simultaneously... I am a professional writer. Far from inhibiting my reputation as what the press have called the People's Poet, this perfectly normal working relationship with publishers and newspapers has added to it," he wrote.

A spokesman for The Mail on Sunday said Motion wrote the poem while standing on the shore of a Canadian lake. "It is thought-provoking and people will like it."