Andrew Motion: ‘Very often with poems I think when I get to the end: oh, I didn’t know it was about that’

The former Poet Laureate on his new volume, Philip Larkin and finding love

Andrew Motion enters the long, light meeting room of the Faber offices with a mug in his hand, a leather jacket and a record bag slung over his shoulder. It’s not a look I expect from him, the Oxford-educated former Poet Laureate, just turned 60, who by his own admission is part of the ‘Sadness Club’. A Withnail- style get-up seems to be the caricature I have assigned him in my mind.

Then again, Motion has already surprised me with the second section in the first full collection of poems he has published since he stepped down as Laureate and suffered severe and well-publicised writer’s block. Just after the set of war poems (that have been made much of in reviews of The Customs House) are a clutch of little ditties titled Exploration of Space that sound out a married life in various places in the world. Reading them is a change of pace; suddenly Motion’s world has been lifted.

“I recently got married again and they are all about my wife, in one kind of landscape or cityscape or another. I’ve never really written love poems in a kind of ‘I love you don’t go away’ way. After I’d written two or three of these, I thought they probably were as close as I could get to love poems. But they were evidently interested in something else as well, which is the relationship between two people together and the environment in which they move.”

Loss has directed much of Motion’s life and work. The loss of his mother, Gillian Motion, in 1978 when Motion was 26, motivated much of his early poetry. The memory of his father, who died in 2006, dragged him wholly back into the real world and out of the creative vacuum that the position of Laureate had led to, spurring on the war poetry that make up most of The Customs House and broke his writer’s block. After his marriage to translator Kyeong-Soo Kim, love seems to get a look in now – but only partially. “There are plenty of consistencies in there but it feels to me like there’s something different in the book and a lot of it is around precisely those poems in the middle which just start to look in a different direction. It’s not necessarily a good thing when poets become unlike themselves, or move on, but as a writer you can’t help thinking it is a good thing. You don’t want to plough the same field endlessly.”

Familiar features

Of course there are lots of familiar features in the book – evidence of Motion’s past alongside his present. Numerous dedications tell their own stories. The Natural Order – dedicated to the memory of Philip Larkin – seems to stand out. Motion met Larkin when he ventured up to Hull after graduating and the pair formed a deep friendship. “There were things in our relationship that a proper relationship shouldn’t have. We didn’t really talk about politics because our politics were not the same. We couldn’t talk about relationships because he was inclined to say things that made me think he shouldn’t say these things. What we did have in common was the poets that we liked: Hardy, Christina Rosetti, Edward Thomas, Shakespeare, of course, bits of Tennyson, more Shakespeare. We’d talk about these people and listen to them too, as he had recordings. Quite often I’d look up and see tears pouring down his face.

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“Of all the people I’ve ever met, for good and for ill, he was the one who found the most direct route to saying aloud what was in his mind. He could look at a tree that he thought was beautiful and something allowed him to say ‘the trees are coming into leaf like something almost being said’. He just had this amazing access to himself. It’s something that I am still trying to achieve.”

Motion’s own poetry comes from a mixture of “intellectual interest, worldly curiosity and, most important of all, strong feeling”. He admits he wrote a couple of his almost-love poems before realising what he was writing about. It’s part of the almost auto-writing process that is poetry. “Poems are always about more than their subjects. Very often with poems I think when I get to the end ‘oh, I didn’t know it was about that’. There is a bit of you that isn’t quite in control of what you are writing. If you don’t have the unknown you end up producing something that’s over- determined.”

These days, out of the glare of the public eye somewhat, poetry is allowed to happen to him again. “Last week I was coming back from a reading in Yorkshire. I was on one of those little chuggy trains and I looked out of the window and there was a steeply angled field with a wood behind it and two villages either side, so it was kind of a frame and there was a weird bolt of sunlight – it kind of struck a deer and the deer kind of looked at me and bolted off. I thought ‘that’s a poem’. I didn’t have any expectation of seeing this thing or writing about it.

“I could do that because it made me feel strongly. It got me somewhere. Whereas... well, I know that if I was Laureate now, somebody, actually several dozen people, would have been on the phone and asked if I could write about Jimmy Savile. Actually I have strong feelings about that because I think it is revolting but I’m not able to get that into a poem. There was the expectation you can write a poem about any damn thing. Of course you can’t.”

Gypsy Wedding

Being prescriptive is off-limits for Motion and so is locking yourself up in an ivory tower. If you want to write the world, you should at least be in it. He leads by example, recently being made president of the Council for Protection of Rural England, where HS2 is his main priority, and serving on the board of the Advertising Standards Agency, where he had to help make a decision on the controversial Big Fat Gypsy Wedding adverts. “It’s looking at images and words and deciding what their meaning is.” He’s also still teaching, a professor of Creative Writing at Royal Holloway. It all seems disparate, but the pieces connect because they are part of him.

“If the centre of me is writing poems then to have all these more practical manifestations of that commitment seems to me a way of leading a life which is at once very focused and diversified. You can’t just sit at home all day writing poems. After a few hours your brain is fried and you want to do something else. Some people want to lock themselves away, and good luck to those who can afford to do that. For those of us who can’t afford and, anyway, want to live a full life and do something, that seems to be a sensible way to proceed. ‘One must do good in the world’, Keats said and I have to say I think that’s right.”

n The Customs House is published by Faber, �12.99