He wanted the job - so what's wrong with that?

Blake Morrison, a friend of the new Poet Laureate, on why he is the right choice

Blake Morrison
Saturday 22 May 1999 23:02

One of the few good suggestions made during the long kerfuffle over the Poet Laureateship was that it cease to be a job for life. Perhaps to Andrew Motion's relief, the Government has listened and made his a 10-year appointment. The one drawback (enough to send anyone screaming to the nearest Channel port) is that speculation about the next Laureate will now be starting up again in a mere 10 years.

The rumour mill of the past six months has done poets little good. I feel particular sympathy for Carol Ann Duffy, whose poems aren't confessional and whose sexuality was neither here nor there until the press (broadsheet, of course) obligingly drew attention to it and then complained that her lesbianism might be an issue for Tony Blair. I hope that in 2009 the media, in atonement, will campaign for all potential Laureates to be bisexual.

In the meantime Andrew Motion is discovering how thorny laurels can feel. With luck, being in Australia, he won't have had to read what some of his weaselly-anonymous poet colleagues have had to say about the appointment: "A bag of shite." "A disgrace, a scandal and an insult to the country's intelligence." You'd think, from the tone of these fairweather enemies, that we were talking about a post with Mandelson-size powers and a budget of Dome-like proportions - not pounds 5,000 a year for a poet who'd be writing poems anyway. The job hasn't any perks, so far as I can see. The stately send-off they give you at the Abbey is one you're in no position to appreciate.

I wouldn't want the job myself (not that anyone asked), but I'm pleased it's gone to Andrew Motion. He has been (to declare an interest) a close friend for 20 years. Together we edited The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry. He's godfather to one of my children. I'm partial.

But it's not as if I'm in a minority in thinking him a fine poet: Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes thought so, too, and anthologies of post-war poetry always include his work ("obscure" he ain't). Nor am I so partial as to suppose he was the only man for the job: setting aside the very considerable names - Heaney, Walcott, Harrison, Fenton, Les Murray - who were ruled out, or who ruled themselves out, for reasons of republicanism, nationality, distance, disinclination, or the burden of having too many honours already, there remained, among others, Michael Longley, Simon Armitage, Wendy Cope and Benjamin Zephaniah, all of them poets who could have brought something distinctive to the job. The good thing about the new 10-year arrangement is that some of them still can, and will.

But Andrew was a good choice, for several reasons. To start with, he wanted the job more badly than anyone else did, and though he's been sneered at for this, eagerness is what an employer likes to see. He wanted it not because he craved a place at the heart of the establishment (his work at the Arts Council had put him there already), but because he can see the possibilities of the ambassadorial role which goes with the Laureateship: encouraging the reading of poetry in schools, getting it into workplaces, funding it, nurturing it, trying to give it the same central place in national life as it has in, say, Ireland, where you'll find poems by Seamus Heaney on display in airport lounges. Not every poet enjoys this kind of work. Andrew does.

More importantly, Andrew Motion was a public poet, responsive to history and the making of history, long before he wrote about the death of Diana. Princess of Wales. An early prize-winning poem about the effects of 17th- century Enclosures on the Fens set the tone - lyric, elegiac, empathetic - for later poems on the First World War, end of Empire, contemporary Belfast (with its "stern geographies of punishment"), the Gulf War and the Marchioness disaster. He has written in a more private, domestic mode, too, as lover, husband and father. But whatever his subject, loss is an abiding theme.

The dying fall is not a fashionable cadence, or one No 10 Downing Street especially wants to hear. But it links Andrew Motion to a line of indigenous poets - from Tennyson and Hardy, through Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas, to Philip Larkin. Which is to say: he's English, another important factor. These are devolving times. The Welsh, Scottish and Irish, who will want their own Laureates, take pride in a distinct cultural identity - whereas the English have an enfeebled sense of their Englishness. For a poet to explore the national identity, and to find images for it which aren't alienating to the mass of the population, is a real challenge. And very much Andrew Motion's thing.

Will he be a "safe" Laureate? I hope not. If I were him, I'd be so nettled by now at seeing myself called safe, I'd be preparing something wilfully indecorous for the wedding of Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones - something bawdy and Rochester-like, perhaps, or else a variation on the poem which Andrew Motion himself wrote to an old dress of his wife's, "a dress you have always said/I never told you I liked. Well, I did, you know. I did./I liked it a lot, whether you were inside it or not." His other option is silence, of course - there is (or was, under the old arrangement) no formal obligation for the Laureate to produce anything, ever.

Andrew being conscientious, it's safe to say he'll do his duty. But he's never predictable. While the clamour for a people's poet was at its pitch, he published a terrific poem in the TLS about a horse, neither a populist venue nor a crowd-pleasing subject. His voice is quiet, his tone tentative, but that doesn't make the poetry dull. It's interesting to see how the tender and vulnerable early voice has hardened itself. It's true of him in life, too: he can do the smiling public man bit, but he's tough as old boots. Just now, that toughness is the most reassuring thing about him. While the media will be eager for the new boy to prove himself, what really matters is that he preserve the space to write the poems he has to write. By which I don't mean the Laureate ones.

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