Andrew Motion: Chapter and verse

His greatest frustration is that the media pays no attention to poetry - except when the poet's love life is involved. Oh well, he tells Sholto Byrnes, that's real life...
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Poet Laureate thinks the media doesn't give poetry the space it deserves. "There is an idea in the press that it matters," says Andrew Motion, "but they're not interested in doing anything very developed on it." He cites this autumn's Forward Poetry Prize. "It wasn't even mentioned on the Newsnight Review round-up, let alone given a slot for the winner to talk about his book. That would never have happened with the Booker Prize."

We are sitting in the cosy living room of the basement flat in north London where Motion now lives. The Laureate leans back on a long sofa, a roll-up cigarette constantly going out in his hand. Softly spoken and trim, 53-year-old Motion appears slight against the dimly lit wall behind him, yet he exudes the powerful presence of one passionate about his art. I perch gingerly on a chair, having just been informed that it is one of the poet's oldest possessions; and that it has recently been broken by a would-be collaborator who sat down on it too heavily. "After he broke it," says Motion incredulously, "he still thought we were going to work together."

In the popular imagination, the role of Laureate is primarily about penning verses to mark royal occasions. It is a post dignified over the centuries by Dryden, Tennyson, Betjeman and Motion's predecessor, Ted Hughes, but no grand grace-and-favour apartment goes with the job. No matter. Motion, informal in shirt and jumper and bearing mugs of tea, is more interested in the practical possibilities of the role. He wants to use it to help promote and protect poetry - to "make things happen".

Most of the time the attention that the Poet Laureate can draw has had positive effects. When Motion was trying to raise money for the Poetry Archive, an online collection of poets reading their own work to be launched on Wednesday, he was able to call the then Secretary of State for Education, Charles Clarke, and tap him for funds.

Occasionally, however, the position that has raised Motion from being a respected poet, biographer, novelist and academic to the ranks of holders of ancient offices of court, has brought unwelcome attention.

Last week the Daily Mail ran a long article about the man they dubbed "the poet leer-eate" and "Pelvic Motion". Under the pretext of claiming that his girlfriend, Sarah Emily Miano, was likely to become the next Mrs Motion, the Mail chose to rake up old reports of Motion's friendships with female students at the University of East Anglia, where he held the chair of Creative Writing. One student accused him of sexual harassment - a charge of which he was cleared - but Motion admitted making a "fool of himself", and a while afterwards he and his wife, the Financial Times arts editor Jan Dalley, split up.

If he were not the Poet Laureate, the Mail could not have justified (and might well have had no interest in) publishing such a piece. Old, cold potatoes most of it may have been, but it was still upsetting for Motion, Dalley and their three children. I ask him if there have been times when he has regretted taking the job. "Yes, there have been," he says. "The sort of attention about things that are not to do with work can be intensely tiresome, not only for me but for my nearest and dearest as well. Those are the bad days. But I have to keep telling myself that there is a far greater store of good that might come out of this.

"And you have to remind yourself that what you might see as hurtful and difficult - however manifestly full of lies, exaggerations or travesties it might be - is still going to end up tomorrow at the bottom of the hamster cage." Motion was aware right from the start that not all would regard his domestic arrangements as entirely regular. When he was offered the job in 1999 he asked for a couple of days to think about it. "I needed to see what kind of a difference it would make to my private life," he says. "Everything I said to myself then about invasiveness fell about a million miles short of what has taken place."

The low, warm voice (described by an old associate as "dark brown") bears no anger, but it's obviously been a pretty ghastly experience for Motion. All the more so given that the thanks he receives for taking on the role extend to no more than £5,000 a year - and a good deal of sherry. In exchange for this, Motion has been the busiest Laureate in living memory, sitting on numerous committees and charities, giving readings around the country, and regularly visiting schools and colleges. Even then, he doesn't always receive the warmest of welcomes. Just the other month he was waiting to go into a classroom when some of the boys he was about to speak to passed by. "I hate poetry," grumbled one loudly.

But such a reaction does not dispirit him. "It's learned behaviour," he says. "It's not in the genes. What educators need to do is to unlearn that - or make sure [that children] don't learn it in the first place."

Motion himself formed an educative friendship with Philip Larkin when he went to teach at Hull University in the 1970s. He was later to write an acclaimed biography of Larkin, which won the Whitbread Biography Award in 1993. Earlier, the young Motion was fortunate to have an inspiring English teacher at Radley, who played recordings of T S Eliot reading The Wasteland to his class. Motion was taken by the "compelling, austere authority". "Even though a lot of it was still incomprehensible to me, I felt extremely moved listening to it," he recalls. "I felt I was understanding certain things to do with the emotional purpose of it that I wouldn't by simply reading it on the page."

Making it possible to experience a poem in this way - tuning into what Motion calls "sound sense" as opposed to "page sense" - is one of the purposes of the Poetry Archive. At its launch about 100 poets will be on the site, which will feature recordings of Tennyson and Browning and those contemporary figures such as Seamus Heaney and Simon Armitage. The archive is on the look-out for hitherto unknown recordings - they would like to hear from anyone with a cylinder on which Thomas Hardy's voice is captured, for instance - and also intends to tape poets who may not be alive for much longer.

"Quite a lot of the poets on the site who we recorded are already dead, which rather proves our point," says Motion, mentioning two - Charles Causley and D J Enright. "For a while we thought recording someone was like giving them the black spot."

Motion describes the more traditional side of his job - writing poems for royal or historical occasions - as the most difficult part. "I have to feel that these poems are authentic, real," he says. "They can't be just sycophantic." Doggerel is absolutely out as far as the Laureate is concerned.

But he is also something of a rarity - a leading figure in the arts and north London resident who is a member of the Labour Party and also a royalist. "I like the variety and unpredictability and ancientness of it," he says of the Royal Family. "They give a valuable sense of constancy in a fast-moving world."

Motion sees the sovereign at least annually when she bestows the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. "People often say that they don't suppose the Queen reads poems, but she reads at least one book of contemporary poems a year," says Motion. "That probably puts her ahead of most people."

The Poet Laureate has also taken advantage of another traditional aspect of the post - the "butt of Sherry sack" awarded him by the Sherry Institute of Spain. "I got flown over to Jerez and spent a very boozy weekend staggering around the bodegas choosing what I wanted," he says. The "butt" contains 700 bottles, which Motion intends to put to good use when they are delivered. "I'll have a big party for PEN," he says, alluding to the society devoted to upholding writers' freedoms. "This is how I try to approach the post in a wider way."

Bringing poetry, he means, to as wide an audience as possible; and if a drop of sherry accompanies it, so much the better.

The Poetry Archive launches on Wednesday at www.poetryarchive.org

BIOGRAPHY

Born: 1952 in London. Started writing poetry at 16 while off school with arthritis. Read English at Oxford. Edited Poetry Review 1981-83. Editorial Director and Poetry Editor at Chatto and Windus 1983-89. Motion was appointed Poet Laureate in 1999, on the death of Ted Hughes. He is paid £5,000 per annum - and a butt of sherry.

Academic career: Taught English at Hull 1976-81, then Creative Writing at UEA. Now at Royal Holloway, London.

Publications: To date, 10 collections of verse, four biographies (including Keats and Philip Larkin) and one work of fiction, The Invention of Dr Cake.

Lucky break: Meeting Larkin.

Comments