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Poetry in Motion

 

Liz Thomson meets former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion as he publishes Silver, his sequel to Treasure Island.

The news, announced in spring 2010, that Andrew Motion was at work on a sequel to Treasure Island was rather a surprise. He’d recently stepped down from his term as Poet Laureate, glad to have his life back after the ‘onerous’ duties of the role. Surely, his priority would be to write poetry unfettered by the demands of ‘his boss’, HMQ, or the nation at large, which was how Motion – knighted for his service – chose to redefine ‘the job’.

‘It was my idea and it’s an idea I’ve wanted to get to for a very long time,’ he reflects, over coffee in his sunny and unpretentious North London home. ‘It does seem odd until you join up various sets of dots. The last two serious bits of prose I wrote, one was a life
 of Thomas Griffiths Wainwright, the 19th-century poisoner, at least half of which is ventriloquised – faked-up ideas of what his confession might be like. Immediately after writing my Keats book, because 
I couldn’t bear to let him go, I wrote a novella which 
is a biographical caprice, thinking about what 
Keats might have done if he hadn’t died. You can immediately see that to write another cod-19th century book isn’t such an odd thing for me to do. 
I’ve got form in this area!

‘Even though it sounds like the sort of thing you say to interviewers, it’s true that pretty much ever since I can remember I thought Stevenson – who himself was very interested in sequels and wrote one to Kidnapped, called Catriona – in his expedient way might have left open some doors in Treasure Island and perhaps intended to go back to it himself. On the first page we’re told that the silver has been left on the Island. That really is an invitation.’ Motion allows, however, that ‘the word “sequel” does set alarm bells ringing, because there are so many bad ones out there. But then there is Wide Sargasso Sea, which proves it can be done – I know that’s a prequel, but same difference.’

Motion knew he’d be entering difficult territory. ‘But the reason bad sequels are bad more often than not is because they take on the original book at its own game. You’re bound to lose, so don’t do that
– move it away to some quite dramatic, emphatic extent. I thought that by moving it on a generation I’d be writing my own book but still have the original to kick off from or push against or interrogate in some way.’ In an age of mashing and sampling, a sequel adds to the debate about the ownership of ideas and where a text begins and ends, he suggests.

From the outset, Motion knew his book would be ‘entertaining but quite dark, because (and I’m sure 
I’m not the first person to say this) there’s always a fascinating connection to be made between Stevenson and Conrad and, in a sense, what I wanted to do was combine Treasure Island with Heart of Darkness. In fact, there are one or two phrases from Heart of Darkness dropped – subtly, I hope – into the text, just as there are quotes from Stevenson embedded in what I’ve written. I was looking for something that would allow that to become manifest and then I had the idea that the Island would be run into by a slave ship.’

Thus, when young Jim Hawkins and Natty, John Silver’s daughter, and their shipmates put ashore they encounter a dystopian nightmare state which presents them with a dilemma. ‘The children think they’re children of the Enlightenment. They think the world 
is better, that Romanticism has happened, the French Revolution has happened, that progress is under way.

Jim has had a proper education, at the Dissenting Academy in Enfield, which is in fact modelled on 
Keats’ school. But when they get to the Island they
 find the bad old world is intact, so their dilemma is whether to just nip in, get the silver and bugger off again or whether, as enlightened people, they have an obligation to make things better and free the slaves.’ As Robert Louis Stevenson appears to have done, Motion leaves the door open for a sequel.

Silver, like Treasure Island– like most of Stevenson’s work – is about the father-son relationship. Indeed, Motion describes it as ‘the engine’ of his own novel. His father died as he stood down as Laureate and ‘nearly all’ the poems he’s been writing lately have been about him. If the spirit of his father imbues his recent work, it is that of his mother, condemned to a living death for nine years following a riding accident when Motion was 17, which pervades his earliest. He wrote, he has said, to keep his memories of her alive, so would he have even been a poet if not for his mother’s tragic situation? ‘It’s very hard to say. I had started writing poems just before Mum had her accident, so I might have gone on doing it anyway. But what is absolutely unarguable was 
that six months after I’d started writing poems this terrible thing happened and, boy, did I have a subject. I couldn’t write about anything else. Everything else felt like a betrayal. So I think it’s truer to say she made me the kind of poet I am, for good and for ill. It forged right at the beginning a very close connection between the act of writing poems and the wish to create elegies. Those are the things I feel most comfortable writing, though I regret having to do so because it means someone has died. But my view of the world poetically and in other respects was very deeply coloured by that.’

 

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Motion On The Role Of Poet Laureate

 

‘Bang the drum, toot the whistle, hang the bunting – do all that so poetry is more conspicuous... We’re reeling from economic shocks but rather than sitting here wailing can’t we say here’s a great opportunity for us as a country and as a culture for the arts to be made a fuss of? We have wonderful painters, wonderful poets, wonderful novelists. We’re the country of Shakespeare – be proud of it.’

 

 

 

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THE IMPORTANCE OF ELSEWHERE’


‘I went to Hull partly because there were very few jobs in universities then [1976], Mrs Thatcher having wandered through the academies waving her machete, and partly because Larkin was there. I’d first read his poems at school and fallen in love with them... When I got there, everyone in the English department said: “you’ve come to meet Philip Larkin? You’re absolutely nuts! He hates everyone who works in the university and especially in the English department”. I thought: oh dear, that’s a long way to come.’ Then, mid-way through his first term as an academic, Motion’s Head of Department took him for a drink at the staff bar, which Larkin was propping up.

‘Two very peculiar things happened, both very minor, which turned out to be rather significant. We were both drinking beer – everyone used to drink at lunchtime in those days and Philip did drink a hell of a lot. Anyway, he took a great swig of beer and it went down the wrong way. So instead of kneeling at his feet, which is what I’d expected to do, he’d got his glasses off and there were tears pouring down

his face and I was pounding him on the back. A much more intimate connection immediately than I’d ever expected to have. And when he’d recovered we started talking and one of the things he said was “what did your father do” and I said “he’s a brewer” and his face lit up. He thought I came from stock that produced things that people actually wanted, ie alcohol, rather than stuff they could take or leave, like art.

‘Quite soon after that the Hull Daily Mail organised a poetry competition to celebrate the about-to-be-opened Humber Bridge – a beautiful thing, Barbara Castle’s sop to the voters of Hull, connecting nothing with nothing really – and they asked him to be one of the judges.’ Motion, too. ‘Philip, rather to my surprise, said “why don’t you come round one evening and we’ll do it at home”. To cross anyone’s threshold is a very significant and symbolic act, which sounds pompous but it’s true. And Philip’s was really significant, because he just didn’t invite people back. We had a hilarious evening – I can’t remember a lot of it because I got so tight; he really did drink a lot in the evenings, really a phenomenal amount. We certainly looked at the poems and I remember he said it was interesting that children’s poems were always better than grown-ups’ poems. I also remember him prancing round the room at one point saying “I could win this: I put my luncheon in the fridge and go and look at Humber Bridge...”.’ Motion giggles at the memory. ‘He was the funniest man I ever met. He was a brilliant mimic and full of the most pulsating humorous energy, often quite acerbic, but he had a real streak of hilarity... We made each other roar with laughter and we liked the same poets and we liked drinking, so my father’s training of me found a purpose.’ 

 

Motion On  LARKIN’S BIOGRAPHY:

 

‘I put absolutely everything in. I decided that he was the most candid person I’d met, therefore say it. And if people had a problem with it, which some did, they would have to have a negotiation with themselves.’


 

He was also ‘the most forthright and honest person I’d ever met’ and, as friend and later biographer, Motion had to decide the extent to which Larkin meant what he said and whether his most outrageous comments were forgivable because he didn’t mean them. There were aspects of his personality which Motion could not buy into, poems whose politics he abhorred, such as ‘Homage to a Government’. Difficult subjects were avoided and did not diminish their friendship, though when it came to the biography nothing was off-limits.

‘I put absolutely everything in. I decided that he was the most candid person I’d met, therefore say it. And if people had a problem with it, which some did, they would have to have a negotiation with themselves.’ As a result, Larkin the man emerged as an unexpectedly complicated personality but it didn’t detract from Larkin the poet. ‘It’s better to have the reality of the man established – and he’s still greatly admired. Yeats said that “out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry”. That pretty well describes what happened with Larkin. When I say he wrote poems to get away from being himself, that’s what I mean... I think he was very uncomfortable in his own skin... full of self-doubt.’ 

 

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andrew motion

Andrew Motion © Adrian Lourie/Writer Pictures

THE POET AS PUBLISHER


Motion left Hull long before Larkin died, remaining in close touch. He’d won the inaugural Arvon poetry competition – ‘£5,000, which I lived on for a year’ – and resigned to go freelance, travelling first to India ‘to get myself back on track’, and then returning to Oxford, where he shared a house with his old friend Alan Hollinghurst, ‘my one-man writing workshop’, whom he would shortly publish. He was thinking 

of writing a biography of the American poet Elizabeth Bishop and wrote to Chatto, her publisher, proposing it. The Chairman invited him in for a chat, introducing him to the new MD, Carmen Callil, who’d founded Virago.

‘She’s so extraordinary and dynamic – a force of nature. I spent about 20 minutes in her room and she appointed me poetry editor there and then and asked me to write a book about the Lamberts, because she was looking for someone to do it. I knew about Kit, I knew a little bit about Constant, but I didn’t know anything about George. It was my first biography and I absolutely loved doing it.’

When the Editorial Director’s chair fell vacant, Callil offered it to Motion. ‘I’d roughly worked out how things worked by that stage, though I was still quite wet behind the ears. But there was a lot I was rather good at, including buying books that sold. Chatto was a very small organisation and I couldn’t help noticing that provided you didn’t have any massive screw-ups and you had three books in the year that sold really well you floated the whole ship. In my first year I bought Alan’s first book, The Swimming Pool Library – I’d been looking over his shoulder as he was writing it, an absolutely brilliant book – and I asked Anthony Sher to write a novel, Middlepost; and I bought The Killing Fields, which became this very successful film, so I was the hero of the hour.’

The role left no time for his own writing and so, after eight years, Motion quit what would be his last full-time salaried job. Numerous books followed: poetry, fiction, biography, criticism, and he returned to teaching, first at UEA, then at Royal Holloway, where he is Professor of Creative Writing. He was both busy and increasingly visible, beyond the specifically literary scene, already an advocate for poetry. When the position of Poet Laureate fell vacant at the death of Ted Hughes, Motion was the obvious choice, though he accepted the position on condition that it was for a 10-year term, not for life. He decided that the only way to approach it would be to write, in addition to ‘royal’ verse, poems that touched on aspects of national life, ‘and put them in a public space so that the language of poetry could be heard above other forms of public discourse that make up our babel.’ He was ‘very tempted’, when it came to an end, to ‘get into politics in a more pragmatic way, but then the government changed and I’m not going to work with those people.’ Aside from adding to the quality of life, the arts offer ‘so much for your buck’.

As it is, he’s putting the finishing touches to a book of poems that will mark his sixtieth birthday in October. After that, ‘who knows? I’m writing more poems than I’ve ever done in my life before and I’m feeling more in my skin as a poet than I’ve ever felt before. I want to go on writing poems, and I want to write this sequel... I’ve started tinkering.’ 

 

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andrew motion

Andrew Motion © Adrian Lourie/Writer Pictures



 

Andrew Motion: the CV

 

Born 1952 in London, raised in Stisted near Braintree in Essex.

 

Secondary education: Radley College University College, Oxford reading English M. Litt. on the poetry of Edward Thomas

 

1976 to 1980 taught English at the University of Hull

1980 to 1982 edited the Poetry Review

1982 to 1989 Editorial Director and Poetry Editor at Chatto & Windus

1995 Professor of Creative Writing, University of East Anglia

1999 to 2009 Poet Laureate

2003 Professor of Creative Writing, Royal Holloway, University of London

2005 co-founded The Poetry Archive (www.poetryarchive.org)

2009 Knighted for services to literature

2011 Jamie Oliver’s Dream School

 

Currently:

2012 Man Booker Prize for Fiction Judge

Council member of the Advertising Standards Authority

Chairman of the Museums, Libraries & Archives Council

 

Prizes and awards:

1975 Newdigate Prize for Undergraduate Poetry

1976 Eric Gregory Award

1982 Arvon Prize for The Letter

1984 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for Dangerous Play: Poems 1974 – 1984 1987 Somerset Maugham Award for The Lamberts

1988 Dylan Thomas Prize for Natural Causes

1993 Whitbread Prize for Biography for Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life

May 1999 appointed to succeed Ted Hughes as Poet Laureate, for 10 years

1999; Knighted in Queen’s Birthday Honours

Hon DLitt: Universities of Hull, Exeter, Brunel, Anglia, Sheffield Hallam and the Open University; Honorary Fellow of University College Oxford; Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature; Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts

 

He lives in Islington, north London.


 

 

 

  

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AN UNBOOKISH CHILDHOOD

 


Motion’s background was ‘coun-try’ – with a wry grin, he breaks the word into two distinct syllables. There was money, though most of it 
was gone by the time his father died: his great-great-grandfather, another Andrew Motion, was a Scot who came down to London, entered the brewing trade and ‘invented’ Free Houses – an appropriate antecedent for an author and publisher, Motion agrees with a laugh. He grew up in Essex, a ‘profoundly unbookish’ childhood. ‘My father read half a book in his life, though I think my mother belonged to a book club. I have this memory of her pulling the new Iris Murdoch out of (as it were) a Jiffy Bag. I have a younger brother, Kit, who’s a grain merchant, and he doesn’t read either.’ It was, he continues, ‘an absolutely middle-of-the-road, rural, middle-class upbringing, but no books, no pictures, no music. They simply weren’t interested in any of that stuff – which pretty much describes my life.’

Young Andrew was sent away to prep school at seven and then to Radley 
College where, in the sixth 
form, he encountered Mr Way, who taught A-Level English and who ‘walked straight into my head and turned the lights on... I was frightened by pretty much everything and I was shy and effeminate and a bit chicken-y about things. My Pa was a very very strong personality, a bit alarming. My Mum was very sweet,
 but then suddenly she wasn’t there... It was always very noisy in my childhood – all the men shouted all the time. Part of the appeal of poetry was that it was a wayof saying you don’t have to live like this. There’s another world over here.’ Motion was seen as ‘completely odd’ though his father never stood in his way, ‘just waved me off when I went to university, which no one in my family had done before .And there was Wys!’ 

 

Motion On WH AUDEN:

 

‘And the fact that he liked my poems made me feel I should go on with it. I was dizzy with gratitude.’

 

 

Wys was Wystan Hugh Auden, no longer Oxford Professor of Poetry but living out his final years in 
a cottage provided by Christchurch. He took the aspiring poet under his wing, and Motion would drop off work every week, much as his own students now do. ‘They’d always come back scrumpled. I don’t know what he did with them but he was incredibly messy 
– that bit about The Habit of Art was right. There’d
be ash ground into them, and coffee rings and drink rings...it looked like the Olympic committee had set to work. He’d say that works, I don’t think this does...’

Auden, friend of Christopher Isherwood and Benjamin Britten, regarded by many as the
 greatest poet of the twentieth century: was Motion intimidated? ‘Profoundly, but in the same way you might be intimidated if you ever got to have tea with God! He was so far beyond everything. I thought his poems – then and still – were magnificent on the most extraordinary scale, so to see him once a week, which was what he kindly asked me to do, I did feel I was talking to God. And the fact that he liked my poems made me feel I should go on with it. I was dizzy with gratitude. It was a little creative writing course, though it didn’t go on for very long because he died. But I remember coming out of those meetings and walking down the High Street in Oxford and thinking: it doesn’t matter if I never meet another poet, because I’ve met Auden and I’ve had conversations with Auden... Lucky me. And then I went to Hull and there was Philip.’

Larkin, who dominated poetry in the latter half of the twentieth century, was one of the main reasons Motion went to Hull, having added an MLitt to his first. ‘Much as I liked being in Oxford, I was in a hurry to get out in the world. I felt bandaged and too cosy; 
I wanted variety. So I decided to do an MLitt not a DPhil, two years not three, with John Fuller as my supervisor.’ His subject was Edward Thomas, ‘my favourite poet, though in those days no one had much heard of him – he was the poet’s poet’s poet. Now 
he’s pretty much on The Archers and certainly on the A-Level syllabus.’

 

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Motion On ALAN BENNETT’S THE HABIT OF ART :

 

‘I thought it vulgarised Auden, made him not recognisable
to me, painted a picture with too broad a brush. I never like being rude to living writers but I thought the individual lines were better than the play.’

 

 

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

Andrew Motion has steadily amassed a substantial body of work – and not just in poetry.

 

Autobiography

In the Blood: A Memoir of My Childhood 2006

 

Poetry

Goodnestone: A Sequence 1972

Inland 1976

The Pleasure Steamers 1977

The Poetry of Edward Thomas 1980

Independence 1981

Philip Larkin 1982

Secret Narratives 1983

Dangerous Play: Poems 1974–84 1984

Natural Causes 1987

Two Poems 1988

Love in a Life 1991

Selected Poems by Thomas Hardy (ed.) 1994

The Price of Everything 1994

Penguin Modern Poets: Volume 11 (contrib.) 1997

Salt Water 1997

Selected Poems 1976–97 1998

John Keats: Poems Selected 2000

A Long Story 2001 Here to Eternity: An Anthology of Poetry (ed.) 2001

Public Property 2002

First World War Poems (ed.) 2003

The Cinder Path 2010

Laurels and Donkeys (Radio 4)

 

Biography

The Lamberts: George, Constant and Kit 2011

1986 Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life 1993

Keats: A Biography 1997

Wainewright the Poisoner 2000

 

Essays

Ways of Life: Places, Painters & Poets 2008

 

Fiction

The Invention of Dr Cake 2003

Silver 2012

 

 

 

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silver

Silver by Andrew Motion

is published 5 April 2012

in hardback by Jonathan Cape,

price £12.99.