Sir Andrew Motion was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom for ten years, but he’d rather you remember him for anything but that. Motion is the author of award-winning novels, poetry collections, and biographies, and he is the founder of The Poetry Archive. On Oct. 15, The Herald sat down with him to discuss why words matter, and what keeps Motion moving.
Yale Herald: Having spent most of your life living in England, you recently moved to Baltimore to teach at Johns Hopkins University. What was the motivation behind that?
Sir Andrew Motion: The answer to this may be so long that we may not get to any other questions. But I think the decision to move to the United States was not so much about feeling disappointed or furious about anything in England. It was more a case of being offered what looked like a very interesting job with very interesting students and with very much time when I could get on with my own writing, in a place which is highly complicated but also very fascinating.
And I had come to feel that in England, I think more than would have happened in the United States, the fact that I had done a very high-profile thing—being Poet Laureate—began to feel rather like a weight around my neck. I began to feel very posthumous, despite the fact that I was actually doing very new and different things and I was writing a reasonable amount, and I was President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England. I was doing a lot, but I always felt like I was the person who had been Poet Laureate. And in this country, I think people who have done that kind of thing are more easily allowed to have a subsequent life without their past always being tied around their neck. So I thought I could sort of escape myself here, and it’s true that things had come to such a pass in England I thought I could hardly turn over in bed without The Daily Mail writing about it, and here, nobody knows who I am. I do feel liberated here—about several stones lighter, in my mind.
YH: You mentioned the “very interesting students” as part of the reason you came to the U.S. In what ways would you say your experience with American students has differed from your experience with students in England?
AM: One particularly interesting place to start is that American students know a lot more about poetic form that my British students did. The way we organize seminars at Hopkins, they get a lot more information about that thing, and it certainly matters, I think. Even if you decide to go and write free verse, everybody should know what’s in the toolkit, as it were. After all, poetry has a toolkit that isn’t available to any other kind of writing, and if you don’t investigate it, why are you bothering?
A much more enveloping difference, of course, is that they are reading all kinds of stuff that I’ve never even heard of, because the traffic between American and British poetry these days is tiny, really. We know about the very big names, we know if somebody wins a big prize, but the more rank and file stuff is pretty much a closed book, or a closed library, to us. So I’m learning a lot from them. I think perhaps there is something in the American education system that encourages people to know a lot about things in a slightly spotty way. One of the things I’m enjoying is the depth of knowledge people have about particularities, and I’m learning a lot from that.
Another source of joy is the chance to help people link those dots up and give them a better sense of the whole picture of verse, so I’m spending a lot of time in my workshops not just talking about their writing but reading poets they’ve never read or even heard of before.
YH: In a recent interview with The Telegraph, you talked about the difficulty of writing poetry about the Royal Family, because, as you said, a large part of the population feels indifferent to them. You said you felt that as Poet Laureate you were being asked to write about things that both you and the public were indifferent to. For you, as a poet, how do these two drives—to write about things that are of interest to the population and to write about things that are of interest to you—meet?
AM: I ended up having a very vexed relationship with the position of Poet Laureate. I was very pleased to be asked to do it—it’s very honoring, and it creates a wonderful opportunity to do things for poetry. I doubt very much that I could have created something like the Poetry Archive had I not been Poet Laureate because I had to raise something like three million pounds to get it going. So I don’t at all regret having done it. But I found from the start that it was very difficult for me to write the poems that the Laureate is expected to write, partly because of this feeling that the population is indifferent to the subject that you’re going to have to engage with—who is, of course, not a subject—but more profoundly and more disturbingly, too, I think public art of that kind comes with the expectation that you, the writer of it, are going to have to go in through the front door of the subject. That it has to be a poem that is clearly about such-and-such an event, and to take a pretty straightforward attitude towards it. Anybody who’s written poems knows that by and large, the best poems are not the poems that go in the front door of the subject.
They are poems that go in the side door, or around the back, or down the chimney, or through the window, or they smash a hole in the wall. So I came to feel quite seriously oppressed by the expectation that I would deal with things more straightforwardly than is in my temperament to do. I think poetry depends on indirection—“Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” It’s very difficult to do that as Poet Laureate. For all those reasons, although I was very pleased to have done it, I was also very pleased to have given it up. Now that I haven’t been it for six years, I’m remembering instinctively what it’s like to feel that I’m just going to write the poems that I’m going to write, which may sometimes coincide with matters of public interest, or may not. But the question of whether they matter because they do or don’t conform to public interest doesn’t arise, and that is a blessed relief.
YH: During your time as Poet Laureate, you founded the Poetry Archive, which you talked a bit about. Beyond the archive, do you imagine the digital medium changing poetry?
AM: Well it’s certainly influencing mine, so I imagine “yes” must be the answer to that. My friend Richard Carrington and I launched the Archive 12 years ago, and I’ve always been interested in how poetry communicates its meanings by sound. Through my research on Edward Thomas early in my writing career, I thought a lot about the sound of sense, and about how one might make that manifest in my own writing. I’ve stopped punctuating my poems, for one thing. Instead, I’ve started placing my lines on the page in such a way that it’s pretty clear to anybody how to punctuate it, and how they should be breathing when they’re reading the poems. So the expression of the poem on the page has a sort of sonic equivalence. That has undoubtedly come from hearing lots of poems read aloud on the Poetry Archive. And given that there are 300,000 people a month using it now, it’s very difficult not to think that the influence of these things will creep out and start to affect things. More people are listening to this stuff now than ever have before in the history of the human race. They may not be buying many books, but they are listening to it.
YH: As someone who’s been put in the position where he’s being told that poetry matters or has to make itself matter, do you think that poetry matters or should matter?
AM: Well it certainly matters to me a great deal. It is my life in a really fundamental way. But I think why it matters to me—and in general—is something of a paradox, which is to say that while almost any other kind of discourse that we come across aspires to spell an exact proposition, poetry doesn’t. And I would say poetry shouldn’t. Where every other sort of discourse wants to have one dominant meaning, poetry wants to have multiple meanings. Where every other sort of discourse wants to make sense, poetry enjoys the idea that it might not make literal sense. Where every other sort of discourse heads off in that logical, rational direction, poetry picks up its skirts and runs off over the horizon yelling, “You can’t catch me!”
At least the poems I like best do that, which isn’t to say that they’re necessarily incomprehensible, but they are multiple and thrive on ambivalence and ambiguity. I think that matters a great deal, because that means they are the place—the thing you listen to or the thing you read on the page—that reminds you of a basic pleasure in the human makeup (which is that we like language and the intersection of sense and non-sense—not nonsense, not gibberish, but non-sense) and that reminds you to stretch your imagination, to live in your imagination as much as you do in reality.
YH: What are you working on now?
AM: I’m trying to put together a Selected Poems, which I’m hoping somebody will publish in the States. It starts with a long poem, about 50 pages, about childhood things of one kind or another. I didn’t know quite what I was doing while I was writing it, but I realize now that I was sort of saying goodbye to my English coasts in it. It is, by a very roundabout route, a goodbye to England. And it’s very peculiar formally. It’s like nothing I’ve ever done before. It’s all over the place, but in a very controlled way.
And as I was getting to the end of it, another idea which might benefit from this similar sort of treatment occurred to me. I’m 63 later this month, but I find myself for the first time in my whole life able to just write poems, if I want to. And that is an amazing liberation for me. When that fact dawned on me, I thought that I’d never write a poem again, but in fact the opposite seems to be the case.
YH: Lastly, how was the customary butt of sack that came with the Laureateship?
AM: That’s easily the best thing about being Laureate, of course. The butt of sack is a gift of the Sherry Institute of Spain, who were oddly reluctant to hand it over. So I kept having to write them, saying, “I think you owe me a butt of sack.” And eventually they gave way and flew me out to Jerez, which is one of the great sherry-making areas of Spain. I had a kind of forgotten weekend, going around all the bodegas and deciding what to have. And I chose my sherry, and now I have this butt, this enormous barrel that contains something like 640 bottles-worth of sherry. You’ll think that I’m applying for sainthood or something as I say this, but the fact is that, although I’ve drunk a bit of it, most of it I use as fundraising for the Archive, because it’s a limited bottling, of course. And it’s got quite a nice label, which my daughter designed for me. If that’s a way, again, of validating my time as Laureate, then that makes sense to me.