Memorable for his o'er-reaching ambition

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There are two plausible views that you could take of the current poetry scene in England. The first is that championed by the Literary Review and (presumably) the Oxford University Press, which has stopped publishing new poetry. By this view, there are no competent poets alive. The post of Poet Laureate should be abolished or suspended until someone arises worthy to wear Betjeman's laurel crown.

Another view is that, OK, there are no great poets writing in English at the moment but there are quite a lot of goodish ones. This duller view is the one to which I'd incline myself. Derek Walcott is not as bad as most Nobel prize-winners. In fact his rewrite of the Odyssey as the everyday story of Caribbean fisherfolk is an astonishing piece of work. Even better, though, in my view, is Christopher Logue's series of poems based on Homer's Iliad. What about John Heath-Stubbs, the magnificent blind poet who keeps alive traditional forms and traditional concerns like love and religion? Playful versifiers such as John Fuller could write in any form. So could Wendy Cope.

"Can Wendy Cope?" Fuller and James Fenton once cruelly asked in verse. And the answer would have been, had the Queen placed the laurel crown on her head, yes, she'd have coped very well indeed.

Douglas Dunn is a superb poet - miles better than C Day Lewis or Robert Bridges, two of the 20th-century laureates. And Geoffrey Hill's angry, craggy poems, obsessed by Christianity, history, England and history's betrayals are all in their way laureate poems of a difficult kind. That's just a handful of poets to be going on with.

All the very different poets named have one thing in common. Having read their verse, I find, willy-nilly, that some of their lines have stuck in my head.

This is surely an acid test when it comes to poetry. I have followed Andrew Motion's career with interest and affection ever since he published his first book twenty or so years ago. But try as I can to recall any of his poetry, I find it impossible. His watery pastiches, first of Edward Thomas, then of Philip Larkin, then of Ted Hughes, just don't stay in your head. He must be the dullest, the least memorable, published poet alive. How then did he come to be appointed?

"Watch out for Andrew," Larkin once said to me. "Cultivate him. I like him, but he's the Spender de nos jours." Anyone who knew Larkin's view of Stephen Spender would not have taken this as a compliment. Larkin shared Evelyn Waugh's view of Spender as a man with an idea of himself as a poet who unfortunately lacked the skill to write poetry.

Larkin - destined to have his reputation trashed by Motion's biography of him - had seen a truth about Motion which I, who knew him so much less well, had failed to spot. When I first knew Andrew he was a blond-haired figure with mascara'd eyelashes and wrist bangles who bore a disconcerting resemblance to Dame Hilda Bracket. One imagined that, as was often the way with the more orchidaceous undergraduates, he would one day don a pair of cricketing flannels and get a job teaching English at a prep school. He amazed us all when in his twenties by having his portrait painted. He had a lot of amusing friends, all trying to be the Harold Acton of the 1970s, and one assumed he would be like them.

After we'd lost touch, it was surprising to notice him plodding through the rungs of committee-dom, sitting on the literature panel of this and the sub-committee of that, Widmerpooling for poetry while failing to produce a single memorable poem.

In the Times a few days ago he was quizzed about some novel he'd written in which one of the characters is writing a thesis on "Tennyson's laureate poems, for God's sake". Instead of saying that this was a mere novel, written ages ago, that he couldn't remember it, Motion replied ponderously that this had been intended as "a joke at my own expense".

Hang on. This novel was written in his thirties, or when he was even younger. And he was making "a joke at my own expense" about the laureateship? So even then he thought of himself as laureate material? In his twenties? In his teens? It is one thing to dream of being a poet when you're 16. To dream of being Poet Laureate, though - that's as depressing as the young William Hague with his "Hey, hey, we're the Monkees" hairstyle attending Tory party conferences before he'd had his first snog.

The graceful thing would be for all Andrew's old friends and acquaintances to wish him well. But the deadening self-importance with which, ever since Hughes died, Motion has made it clear that he is "very anxious" to be Poet Laureate makes the heart sink a bit. Excellence in art is unattainable without crazy self-belief and, of a sort, ambition. But this ambition should surely be directed inwardly. The success aimed for is excellence, not a riband to stick in one's coat.

James Fenton, whose poetic skills are so much greater than Motion's, once went on an adventurous trip up the Amazon with the travel writer Redmond O'Hanlon. When they needed to relieve themselves over the edge of the boat they referred to the activity as "passing an Andrew". No doubt it was very juvenile of them, but I've found myself thinking of the phrase all week. It was more than a pun that suggested the idea. It was fine to make Andrew head of the literature panel at the Arts Council, but a Poet he ain't. When he tries to write poetry, well, he is just going through the motions.

BLAKE MORRISON, CULTURE, PAGE 3

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