Sir Andrew Motion succeeded Dryden, Wordsworth, Tennyson and, immediately, Ted Hughes as Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom. He can sound like the elegist of rural old imperial England, but he can sting in the present tense too, on matters from Princess Di to the “scream of rocket-burn” in the war on Iraq. “Harrowing clarity” is his stated goal. He laughs with us about trying to write poetry that looks like water and bites like gin.
We are doing a little comparison shopping across the old pond in our poetry series. Andrew Motion speaks for the far shore of the “two peoples separated by a common language,” in G. B. Shaw’s famous line. His volume of new and selected poems, The Mower, traces a personal and national past without shrinking from a quickly shifting British future. In our conversation, he sounds comfortable living and writing at the meeting of forward and backward gazes.
Introducing The Mower, Langdon Hammer of Yale notes the feeling that Motion describes in his memoir of childhood, In the Blood, as an “evening-mixture of sad and safe.” Hammer explains:
The feeling involves a turning away from modernity and modernization, but it implies for the same reason a specifically modern attitude. That attitude is central to the way in which modern English culture has tended to define Englishness. In this tradition … moral realism and verbal precision, especially in description, balance the potential for vague idealism and naive patriotism. skepticism guards against self-pity …. Feeling is expressed through a carefully calibrated reticence.
Andrew Motion acknowledges with us the ambition to capture in his formal and outwardly quotidian verse his own and his parents’ experience of six pivotal British decades:
A lot of the subjects of my poems are on the face of it very personal — they’re poems about my partner, they’re poems about my childhood, they’re poems about my mother in particular, they’re poems about my father, they’re poems about what happens to me in a rolling way — but I’ve always thought that the very large amount of my time that I spend engaged with the political things around my writing is evident here … a sense of England mutating from being one kind of society into another one. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m sort of lingeringly, damp-eyedly peering back at a golden age and wishing that it would come back again. That’s very much not my political position. I feel very much engaged with the here and now. As I say that, I also feel very struck of course by living at the moment where the old imperial idea of the UK gave way to something else.
Andrew Motion in New York City with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, 12.16.09.