was coming to the end of his tenure as Poet Laureate when on 27 February 2009 Andrew Rumsey met him in his teaching room in central London.
Photography: Andrew Firth
In one of your poems, you write of ‘my pen itching the paper’. What is the itch that your pen scratches?
Well, I am going to give you rather a long and rambling answer. When I was growing up, there was no expectation that I would spend my life as I have spent it, either writing poems or talking about them, or reading them or thinking about them. My mum wrote a bit, but my dad not at all. It couldn’t be described as a bookish upbringing. There was a whirligig which had a few books on it, but nobody ever read them.
I don’t think it would have come to pass had I not at the age of 16 fallen into the path of this man Peter Way, who became my English teacher. I think of him now as one of my best friends – he’s an old man, of course – as well as somebody I’m incredibly grateful to, because he pretty much gave me my life. He walked into my head and turned the lights on, and made connections that I’ve never really broken ever since.
He would have said something like this: Poems are, absolutely, primitive responses to the big things in our lives: time and the passing of time, love and the fading of love (if that happens) and death, with landscape and cityscape, physical geographies of one kind or another, to supplement those themes, and sometimes become the subject themselves. It’s not that he had no time for occasional poems, throwaway poems, poems written on the hoof; but he thought that poems were about the important things in life, and those were the things he encouraged me to read.
And I’ve never really departed from that – and I say this partly against myself, because there are plenty of days when I wish I could be more occasional (as you might say) – and, of course, over the last 10 years [as Poet Laureate] I’ve sometimes been required to be precisely that. But I’m not easy with it. I think poems are a very serious business, and all the poets I like best are the big, sad poets: Tennyson, Hardy, Edward Thomas, Larkin…
If at the end of a morning I have written something that I think is worth other people reading, I have made sense of my existence in the most basic way
And I think I write in order to respect what I see as that sort of centrality of poetry in life. And in addition, I suppose I could say, I write to try to keep my sanity – not that I’d actually lose it if I didn’t, but you know what I mean. To keep my thoughts under control, to give them a shape. And to assuage the sadness that can come with those thoughts by, again, the very primitive pleasure of making something. That’s how it works for me. If at the end of a morning I have written something that I think is worth other people reading, I have made sense of my existence in the most basic way.
I think poetry is a primitive thing. In my mind, like most people, I guess, I have a sense of a set of scales and in one pan sits grief, sorrow, mess, muddle, failure, remorse and all those things – some inflicted on one, some generated by oneself – and in the other pan, trying to weigh enough to keep it more or less steady, sits art. And love – but for me art is very important.
That desire to make sense of things, to represent, to recreate, seems to be a singularly human characteristic.
It is. I don’t notice it much in my cat. (Though I’ve always thought that cats, of which I’m very fond, are not unevolved. In fact, they’ve evolved to the perfect pitch, provided they can find a nice family to go and live with.)
I couldn’t agree more.
Well, all this is very primitive stuff, I think. It comes from a basic wish to try to make sense of our experience of being here, of living in time, of our natures as they connect with other people. For some people, other sorts of activity will provide the answers, or at least begin to; but for people who have it in them to write poems and an instinct to do so, poems are going to fulfil that role. More than that, I have to say, it is extremely difficult to say.
Can I step back and say something more general? I’ve always thought that poems that work, no doubt like paintings or pieces of music that work, are the result of a curious relationship between the side of your mind that knows what’s going on and is educated, alert, fully conscious, manipulative in the sense of structuring and organising, all those sorts of things, and the side of your mind that frankly hasn’t a clue what’s going on and is full of the fetid bubbles that rise up from the deep, primeval swamp of your un- and subconscious.
If you have too much of the former when you’re writing a poem, it may look good but it’ll be a bit soulless, and if you have too much of the latter it may mean a lot to you but probably not to anybody else. So, you’re always trying to keep a balance between the two, between yin and yang, id and ego or whatever. If it’s true (and I think it probably is, and a lot of other poets historically have said similar things), it follows, I think, that the person writing the poem is, strictly speaking, only going to know half about what they’re doing as they’re doing it. That is very much my experience.
Equally important to me, I also believe in the value of mystery, of things not being fully understandable by our rational processes. We know that a great deal of the instruction and delight that poems can offer comes from the fact that they catch something that is, strictly speaking, not to be spoken, or impossible to utter. You can get somewhere close by a combination of cadence and rhythm and imagery and all the other things that sort of determine the shape of your poem, but even in the very best poems – perhaps especially in the very best – we have a deep sense of satisfaction and at the same time a deep sense of something that has eluded us, that remains out of our reach.
I think that poems do good in the world, but I want to say that it wouldn’t especially matter if they didn’t
Metaphor just carries you off, doesn’t it?
It does. It does. It does.
And very often it’s something very mundane – you know,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.1The closing lines of William Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’
Wordsworth is very good at all that in the first part of his poetic work.
Do you think that poetry has a role in shaping society? And if so, how does it do it?
It’s a huge question. The first thing to say, I think, is that it’s more likely to do it individual by individual than in any more general way. But I have some unease with the question because it makes me want to think of all the ways in which I feel that poems do good in the world. I think they do do good, but I want to say that it wouldn’t especially matter if they didn’t.
Because they’re an end in themselves?
Exactly, and they are to do with ecstatic pleasure, as it were, or ecstatic insight, and they don’t have to spell an exact proposition, as Seamus Heaney put it. That’s part of the mystery, I think: they can be beautifully useless and yet have immense value.
Having said that, I think there are ways in which poetry can manifestly help. It’s becoming evident that it can benefit people who are ill in one way or another, particularly people who have mental illness, and there are various organisations that do fantastic good with poems. And there are other instances of a precise intervention being made, as it were, by poems and them having this healing function. Apollo of course was the god of medicine and poetry, which seems to be about right.
How does poetry heal?
There are ways in which the evidence that a poem contains may elucidate a person’s experience and help them to come to terms with it or understand it – or enjoy it. But there are also ways in which the shared pleasure of it boosts the sense of belonging in a community of people who (at least in this respect) are like-minded. So, it can have a sort of socialising effect, I think.
It definitely helps me, and I have to suppose that it helps other people, too, to cope with the big, difficult things, by steadying us and giving pleasure, giving consolation, giving advice even, but mainly by offering the example of another human being who kind of knows what you are going through, so you’re not alone. I’ve spent a lot of time visiting schools over the last 10 years and so many times refusenik kids have, in three-quarters of an hour, or as long as a lesson takes, stopped being bolshie and started feeling validated by their experience of a poem, given to them in a way that has nothing to do with the narrow demands of the curriculum.
The ancient myths and the sacred texts survive and discover their value because they tell us about recurring things. I think it’s appalling to contemplate a future in which these things aren’t being enjoyed
It’s wonderful to see, and the sort of benediction that it gives is quite extraordinary. ‘I matter. I matter,’ poems allow people to think. ‘What I feel in my heart’s deep core is of interest and value to other people.’
In that sense, do you agree that poetry tells the truth?
Yes. I do think poetry tells the truth. But, to get back to your earlier question, it is very striking how our experiences as readers throw up these moments – or, in some cases, whole bodies of work – that seem to make a very intimate connection with us. I’ve read poems and thought ‘That is for me’ in this very peculiar way. And the great paradox is that that sense of connection is more likely to happen in a poem that is very particular. We can’t connect with generalities in the same way. No truth but in things, to adapt William Carlos Williams’s famous remark. No truth but in things.
Yes, exactly – and, as [Williams] says in ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, ‘so much depends upon’ that absolute particularity.2bit.ly/2w9kyNw
Indeed, it does. Absolutely. Christ knew that – that’s why he taught in parables. Narratives are the extended version of the same thing, really. The thing I say to my students all the time is: ‘Don’t tell us what you think, just show us what you feel!’ We hate poetry that has a palpable design on us, Keats says, and we know from our own experience as teachers that we can talk ourselves blue in the face about the truths of something and people only believe it when they feel it to be true.
And there’s a hospitality in art that allows for that. In a parable you’ve got room for manoeuvre, haven’t you? It allows you the possibility of different interpretations.
You’ve spoken about the loss of both the biblical and the classical narratives from our culture…
I’ve climbed on various hobbyhorses over the last 10 years, but I’ve never had such a response as for this – torrents of emails, some from people of faith, some not, and they all recognised what I was after, which is that the great old stories, the ancient myths and the sacred texts, survive and discover their value because they tell us about recurring things. (They may also have the benefit of being written in a very beautiful way, so they’re not that far from poems in that respect.)
I don’t believe in God – though I wish I did and I can’t stop thinking about it, so who knows what might happen one day? – so I was saying this from a specifically non-believer’s point of view. I just think it’s appalling to contemplate a future society in which these things aren’t being enjoyed. And that’s the place to start, because they give such pleasure. And then on that basis you build a differently important point about how our understanding of ourselves in the present will not be anything near what it should be unless our doors to the past are open. If you forget all this stuff, or never had it taught to you, those doors warp tight shut.
And life just shrinks.
Life shrinks. You go into the National Gallery or you pick up any book written before, well, yesterday and if you don’t know all the stuff that’s being echoed, alluded to, rephrased, parodied, bounced off, deepened – shallowed, sometimes – your experience is going to be enormously diminished.
I think it’s got so bad, I have to say – I don’t mean to sound like Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells – I notice it in my own students. We’ve got to think of ways of reintroducing these stories, either by making damned sure that they’re part of the national curriculum from the get-go in primary school – kids love stories! – and/or by playing catch-up when they get to university, so that in their first year they just have to read this stuff.
I was reading recently about the impact of the parable of the good Samaritan on the spread of charities in Britain – a fragment of a story that has had a profound effect on the lives of millions in this country.
That’s very well said.
Would you agree that any recovery of the narrative, or narratives, of our society carries with it a sense of their transforming impact upon that society?
Absolutely. No, I absolutely do believe that. Poetry makes nothing happen, Auden famously said, and certainly poetry is valuable because it doesn’t have to make anything happen. But, actually, what you’ve just said is true: poems (and, I’m sure, good bits of prose as well) go out into the world and, to the extent that we do shape our present by reference to the past, they precisely make things happen, all the time.
Your poem about Harry Patch [the last surviving ‘Tommy’ from the First World War] was deeply affecting…3bit.ly/2BIydQL
Of all the commissioned poems – which I generally found very, very difficult to do – I think that is the one I’m most happy with. He was just so incredibly interesting – and, as it turned out, unexpectedly moving. Just holding his hand, I felt a blast of humility and gratitude. To be honest, it was a thrill to write that poem.
Much of your writing is powerfully evocative of life in the wake of two world wars, and you capture not only its occasional tenderness but also that deep reserve that has all but disappeared now. How do you feel about the advent in Britain of a more emotionally liberated age?
It’s very striking, this, isn’t it? We keep being told we live in a post-Diana world in this respect: we had a stiff upper lip before and suddenly we became all quivery and weepy. Generally speaking, my feeling is that it’s far better to be as we are now, but I do wonder actually how absolute, and certainly how widespread, that supposed reserve was. My father was very reserved in some respects and never made a fuss about anything, but he was also a person of quivering emotionalness. He spent the last 20-odd years of his life silently weeping.
I think that something about the war, about both the world wars, nailed a lid on things, but probably if we could time-travel we wouldn’t find that much difference between ourselves now and what the Victorians were like before the full weight of Victorianness settled on them. I mean, we don’t read Tennyson and feel that he was living in an emotionally emasculated culture. In fact, rather the reverse. Actually, I think all we’ve done is to revert to being normally human.
I think that my father’s life is very interesting in all sorts of ways. (Perhaps all our lives are.) His parents got divorced when he was a teenager – it didn’t happen much in those days, and it was especially rare for a mother to run off, and he was clearly very freaked out by that. Then he joins up in a Territorial regiment with his friends and sees a lot of them get killed. He comes back after the war, he meets my mum, he loves her – that’s all very good – he has me and my brother, Kit – he’s pleased about that – but then his mother commits suicide by jumping off a cliff when I was 14 or so; and then my mother has this appalling riding accident and is unconscious for three years – three years – and then, very slowly, lifts back to a sort of in-between state – she never leaves hospital. When you join up the dots, that’s a story of serious unhappiness, actually.
My prep school was a horrible dump run by perverts and weirdos, to be frank; but it certainly had religion right at the centre of it, and I loved that – it was a real sanctuary for me
In my mind, I keep coming back to a little story that I didn’t make very much of in my memoir4In the Blood (Faber & Faber, 2006) because I didn’t want to upset him. (He was still alive when I was writing it – in fact, it was the last thing he read – probably the only book he’d ever read end-to-end. How odd must that have been?) As a little boy, he was sitting on the end of his bed with his chin in his hands and he put his tongue out and his feet slipped and he bit it off. He was rushed off to hospital and they stitched it back on. As an image of someone who could not speak… Because he never complained about anything, he just kept going, with tears quietly pouring down his face. They’d never really sewed his tongue back again.
My poor old dad! I miss him very much, and I can’t believe that he’s dead. It gave me the shock of my life seeing him dead. Absolutely the shock of my life.
I do funerals every week and spend my life dealing with death, but we don’t get over it, do we? Scripture calls it ‘the last enemy’ and it feels like the enemy, and yet it is the most natural thing in the world.
Of course, and we know it’s coming. But this connects with what we were saying earlier about the potential of poems to console us: they help us to find a place to keep our anxiety about death and our sadness about the fact of it, so that we don’t go screaming mad every time we think about it.
One feels your parents’ influence in your poems, as well as in your memoir. They had a Christian faith, I believe.
Absolutely. That mattered very much to them.
I had a country upbringing. My father’s family had lived in that village for a long time – there are three generations of them buried there, and I wouldn’t mind being buried there, actually… I don’t know. We’ll see. And in villages of that size – 1,200 people – the church, though not terribly well attended, was extremely important. My mother, I suppose, was devout – certainly she went to church every Sunday – but my dad believed absolutely everything in the Creed. He just bought the whole thing. And then he was treasurer to the [parochial church council] and all that kind of thing. The church mattered to him very much, and his family’s continuing presence in it mattered. My great-grandparents had given the church a big picture, and the candelabra on the altar and various bits and bobs, so he felt good about that, and connected to the building. It became very important to him, and when he was very ill I know it was a comfort to him.
How much of that did you inherit?
Well, my prep school was a horrible dump run by the usual cast of perverts and weirdos, to be frank; but it certainly had religion right at the centre of it, and I loved that – it was a real sanctuary for me from all the flailing bamboo and unkindness that was going on elsewhere. A hot radiator and the Bible, you know, that’s what I liked. I’ve still got my Bible from those days, too, and every time I pick it up I can feel that shelter that it gave.
What does it radiate?
I didn’t wake up one morning and think, ‘God! I’ve lost my faith.’ It just sort of melted, like snow
Comfort. Privacy. Solace. Definitely, all those things. And then I went to Radley College, and I liked that much better – it was a much better school. But even though I was having a better time – particularly after I found Mr Way – because I’d stopped being frightened, so my brain started to work properly for the first time, I still liked the sense of retreat into myself that daily chapel allowed. And Mr Way himself was and is a very devout man – not ostentatiously so, but he believes it all – and because I was very soon fond of him, and he was a bit of a father figure, as it were, that washed off on me. I was still pretty keen on it all when I left school. I think I had a hard time squaring it with what had happened to my mother, though, and then I rather let it lapse through university. I didn’t wake up one morning and think, ‘God! I’ve lost my faith.’ It just sort of melted, like snow. I still went to church quite a lot, but not really believing very much.
Like Philip Larkin?
Like Larkin. Actually, towards the end of my time [as a lecturer] in Hull, Philip was reading the Bible. He’d bought a big old Bible from a church that was decommissioned, and the lectern, too, and he put it in his bathroom and used to read it as he was shaving. Occasionally I’d ask, ‘How are you getting on?’ and he’d say, ‘Still going.’ And then one lunchtime he said, ‘I’ve finished.’ And I said, ‘What did you think?’ And (forgive me for saying this!) what he said was: ‘It’s very beautifully written, of course, but it is absolutely extraordinary that anybody ever believed a word of it. It’s absolute balls.’ I think that’s pretty much where I was at that time, too.
I wouldn’t put it like that, but though I still read it a lot and I think about it a lot, I don’t believe it. It’s just walked away from me. And that’s entirely to do with death. It’s because I can’t believe in the afterlife. It would be wonderful to, it would cheer me up a lot – I suppose – but I just can’t get there. And I can’t see how that’s going to happen.
There isn’t much poetry about the afterlife but there is a lot about how Christian faith illuminates the present. I guess that at the heart of what we call ‘the Incarnation’ is this sense that eternity is written into the particular detail, the stuff, of life –
Quite. Quite. Well, I could sign up to that.
There’s a poem called ‘Missing God’ by Dennis O’Driscoll, which talks about how God is conspicuous by his absence in our more secular age.5 bit.ly/2wnJIY9 Do you miss God in that sense?
There’s definitely a hole that is God-shaped in my life, no question – and perhaps one day it’ll get filled. If I could find a way to do that without having to sign up to everything… That’s my problem: I’m too completist.
I hope it’s true that I have quite a developed sense of the numinous. I think I do. It more often comes around landscape than anything else, but of course it comes around love, too
So, yes, I do. I do. Less than I used to, I suppose. My other half is Korean and was brought up as a Christian, and we talk about it a lot. She has some very beautiful memories of reading the Bible when she was a little girl – she spent part of her childhood on a tiny little farm about 60 miles south of Seoul, in what sounds like the Middle Ages, with no electricity and no paved roads. It sounds wonderful. I wish I could go back there. The reason I’m saying this is that if we ever go and live a different sort of life, in a different place, and crucially a country place – which we may well when we’re older, if we’re spared – I can imagine faith coming back, with a rootedness, a sense of geography attached to it.
A few years ago, I did think seriously about becoming a Catholic, but that was the wrong direction for me. It’s too fruity and you have to believe too much, too much of the stuff that I can’t believe. But I can certainly imagine a version of being C of E that is kind of like my dad’s, really: simple and straightforward.
To conclude, can you say a bit about your experience of transcendence in your art?
Well, I certainly have a sense of what it means, and I certainly have experience of it. Whether I’ve managed to capture any of that in poems is another matter. Paradoxically, it’s more likely to occur through looking at particulars than by drifting off into the empyrean – which takes us back to where we were earlier. There’s a very beautiful little poem by Seamus Heaney called ‘Postscript’, in which he talks about passing a lake on a gusty day and his heart being blown open by the wind.6 bit.ly/2wcfLe4 And I read that and think: ‘I’ve felt that.’
I hope it’s true that I have quite a developed sense of the numinous. I think I do. It more often comes around landscape than anything else, but of course it comes around love, too, even though you might not know that this is what’s happening. I wrote a poem for KyeongSoo called ‘The Goodnight Kiss’, which is a memory of hers about following her granny around the rice fields in Korea. It seems a terribly vain thing to say but when I think of that poem I get the shivers, because it’s such a beautiful memory. Of all the poems in The Cinder Path,7Faber & Faber, 2009 actually, it’s the one I like the most, though I don’t necessarily think it’s the best. I would love to write like that more often.
So, where that leaves us is with another paradox, I think, which is that if art is going to touch the heights that it’s capable of touching, and that we want it to, it’s going to do it by staying, much of the time, very close to things that are entirely to do with our daily existence. And I lead my life very much on that premise. I don’t want to live in an ivory tower, I want to be in the world – and I’m much more likely to write good poems if I am busy in the world than if I shut myself off. I think.
I wish to remain, and hope that I do remain, open to the miraculousness of the ordinary. I think that’s the phrase that sort of does it for me.
A version of this interview was published in the April 2009 issue of Third Way.
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Andrew Motion was born in London in 1952. He was sent to boarding school at the age of seven, and later attended Radley College. He read English at University College, Oxford, where he won the Newdigate Prize and gained a first and then a master’s degree.
From 1976 to 1980, he lectured at Hull University. He then edited Poetry Review until 1982, and was subsequently editorial director and poetry editor at Chatto & Windus until 1989.
In 1995, he was appointed professor of poetry at the University of East Anglia.
Since 2003, he has been professor of creative writing at Royal Holloway, part of London University.
He was appointed Poet Laureate for 10 years in 1999.
His first volume of poetry, The Pleasure Steamers (1978; 4th edn 1999), was followed by Independence (1981), Secret Narratives (1983), Dangerous Play (1984), which won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, Natural Causes (1987), which won the Dylan Thomas Award, Love in a Life (1991), The Price of Everything (1994), Salt Water (1997), Selected Poems (1998), Public Property (2002) and The Cinder Path (2009).
He is also the author of The Poetry of Edward Thomas (1981) and Philip Larkin (1982), and has edited The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (1982) and selections of poems by William Barnes (1986), Thomas Hardy (1994) and John Keats (2000). His 1986 biography The Lamberts won the Somerset Maugham Award and was followed by lives of Larkin (1993), which won the Whitbread Award, and Keats (1997), Wainewright the Poisoner (2000) and a memoir, In the Blood (2006). Other notable works include the novella The Invention of Dr Cake (2003) and a collection of essays, Ways of Life (2008).
He sat on the Arts Council of England from 1996 to 1999, and chaired its advisory panel on literature from ’96 until 2003. He has chaired the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council since 2008, and also sits on the council of the Advertising Standards Authority. With Richard Carrington, he is co-director of the Poetry Archive (www.poetryarchive.org), which the two of them set up in 2005.
He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1982 and of the RSA in 2000, and an honorary fellow of Univ in 1999. He has received nine honorary doctorates.
He married, for the third time, in 2009. He has two sons and a daughter.
Up-to-date as at 1 April 2009