Michele Hewitson interview: Andrew Motion

By Michele Hewitson

Sir Andrew Motion says his time as poet laureate murdered his poetry and people took the mickey out of him. Photo / Dean Purcell
Sir Andrew Motion says his time as poet laureate murdered his poetry and people took the mickey out of him. Photo / Dean Purcell

The former British poet laureate, Sir Andrew Motion, was in Auckland this week, which was very nice for Auckland.

He is a very hard-working poet and he gave talks and lessons on writing, and on Tuesday he attended a two-minute silence at the Auckland War Memorial Museum for the New Zealand soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Afterwards he read a poem.

He'd shown me the poem earlier. It is called The Death of Harry Patch. Patch was one of the last surviving soldiers of World War I and he died in 2009 at the age of 111.

Here is an excerpt from the poem:

A very long and gentle note wanders away from him over the ruined ground and hundreds and thousands of dead who lie there immediately rise up straightening their tunics before falling in as they used to do, shoulder to shoulder, eyes front.

They have left a space for the last recruit of all to join them: Harry Patch, one hundred and eleven years old, but this is him now, running quick sharp along the duckboards.

When he has taken his place, and the whole company are settled at last, their padre appears out of nowhere, pausing a moment in front of each and every one to slip a wafer of dry mud on to their tongues.

This poem made me go a bit funny (for lack of a poetic way of putting it), which made the poet very happy. "Oh, good! That's what I want." Funny sort of job then, being a poet, but it is what poets want, apparently. "Yes, Larkin used to say, remembering Dickens' 'make them laugh, make them cry' ... Larkin used to say, 'make them laugh, make them cry, bring on the dancing girls.' Not that there were any dancing girls in his poems."

Are there are any dancing girls in his poems? "No, no! Even fewer than there were in Larkin's. So it's 'make them laugh, make them cry.' Actually, there's not much laughter, either." So, none then? "None! So, it's mainly make them cry." He doesn't do funny. "I can do wry. Just about. But I can't do funny."

There is no reason a poet should do funny, of course. There are not very many very good funny poems, after all. So he should really have known better. He is probably most famous, much to his chagrin, to put it mildly, for making a very public joke which went very badly wrong. Not many people know he made a joke (they know all about it going wrong.) What they know is that he, while poet laureate, wrote a rap poem for Prince William's 21st birthday. Here is an excerpt from that poem:

Better stand back/Here's an age attack/But the second in line/Is dealing with it fine.

This made me laugh like anything when I read it. It still does. I promised him that if I reproduced any of it, I'd add this: Joke. And we agreed three exclamation marks should ensure, just about, that people finally got it. So: Joke!!!

Surely anyone could see that it was a joke? Oh, no, they didn't. They carried on as if he'd written a rude ditty about the Queen farting, say. They'd have sent him to the Tower and chopped off his head if they could have. Obviously he was trying to be funny. "You're the first person who has ever said that! It was meant to be a joke! Actually, I've never spoken about this before because nobody's had the gumption to ask me about it." God knows why not.

Possibly because it's more difficult to throw rotten eggs at people if you know they were just clowning around a bit. Anyway, he is very pleased that I got his joke. He says he wrote two poems, and "what I wanted to do was give him an old style kind of 45: there was an A side and a B side and on the B side I thought, 'I'll just have a bit of fun'." Well, that'll teach him because nobody got it. "No! They were completely po-faced about it. It was just ridiculous. How could you possibly write a poem as bad as this?"

Why on earth didn't he just say that it was a joke? "You know, if somebody doesn't get a joke, you can't shout: 'Joke!' across the globe. Which is where I offered the three exclamation marks. "Please. And put it on the internet!"

Who'd want to be the poet laureate anyway? It seems a thankless sort of job and he got more flak when he said as much. He also said good things about it but good things, like jokes, tend to go unreported. He was laureate for 10 years (it was always a post for life until his tenure) and he went about the place telling people to read more poems! Poems are good for you! And all the while he could barely put a few words on a page. The job had "murdered" his poetry.

People were taking the mickey. He had become a public figure which is not something that many quiet, hard-working, modest poets exactly relish. "You have to eat a lot of shit, doing that job." And he doesn't even like sherry. It makes him sick. The laureateship comes with a butt of sherry. He said, looking like a little boy who has just penned a really rude ditty, about the Queen farting, say: "This is just the beginning of the butt jokes!"

The sherry, for some arcane reason nobody seems to now remember, by some ancient treaty, doesn't come from the Queen, it comes from the Sherry Institute of Spain. His didn't arrive and so seven years into the laureateship he thought he'd better find out what had happened to it. So he wrote them a letter: "Dear Sherry Institute, Where's my sherry?" and they wrote back saying: "Oh, we're very sorry. We've been meaning to get in touch with you."

Anyway, finally he went off to Spain and chose his sherry and it was duly put in his butt and now he can say: "Well, my butt is next to Ted Hughes' butt which is, rather impressively, next to Bill Clinton's butt." But why has Bill Clinton got a butt? "I don't know! Because he's Bill Clinton! He just turned up and they said, 'hey Bill!' And I've seen John Betjeman's butt!"

Well, good. I'm glad he got some enjoyment from being laureate because he is a terrifically nice chap. He has such a nice face, like a battered but friendly lion, who keeps getting his tail pulled but who lives in hope that the next person he meets will be as nice as he is and won't pull his tail.

My putting in some of his Harry Patch poem is my way of not pulling his tail because he said, sounding very gloomy, that he'd done an interview before he arrived and, sure enough, the only bit of his work to be quoted was the damn William poem.

You could think he was a bit gloomy, from the poems, but that is rather what you expect from a lyric poet. His new book is The Customs House, and "a third of it happens to be about men fighting. I think it's probably to do with my dad".

He "probably" took the laureateship because of his dad. His father used to say things like, "well, at least you've got a teaching job". But he was delighted about the laureateship, because he'd heard of it. It was the equivalent, Motion says, for a non-footballing person, of their son suddenly becoming David Beckham.

He never read one of his son's books of poetry, which is not quite as dismissive as it might sound because he only ever read half a book his entire life. It was The Lonely Skier by Hammond Innes. I said I thought he'd done very well to have read half of it and the poet said, "that's a very good thing to say!"

Actually, he did eventually read a book: His son's memoir of his childhood, In the Blood. "He took quite a long time to read it because it's an unfamiliar activity and about every 30 pages he'd ring me up and say: 'I'm on page 34!' A few weeks later: 'I'm on page 60!' And then one day he rang and said: 'I finished!' Like a child. I said: 'What did you think, dad?' He said, completely deadpan: 'Hilarious'." He should have put that on the cover blurb.

"Yeah! 'It's hilarious - His Dad"'. I think that what he meant was that there was something hilarious about the accuracy, the recall. Anyway, six months later he died. He didn't really have to ... but he decided he'd lived his life. And I actually sometimes think it was in relation to the book and I'm not saying my book killed him, God forbid! But I am saying he could sort of tot it up."

He liked his father and loved him but they didn't talk. "He didn't speak to me, not because he had nothing to say, but because he didn't know where language would take him. These truly dreadful things happened to my father and I think he became wary of manifesting his feelings because if he had manifested them, he might have started screaming."

These truly dreadful things were the war and then coming home from the war and his mother committing suicide, marrying Motion's mother and being happy and then her having a terrible riding accident, when Motion was 17. She was in a coma for three years, which she then came out of and lived, if you can call it that, for another six years, completely paralysed, in a hospital.

She could speak, but her voice was strange because she'd had a big tube in her throat and "her mind was full of holes. And of course she had no life. I mean, when you and I talk to each other we say: ' what a lovely day' or my feet hurt' or 'I'm tired'. There was pain. There was the life of the ward, which was no life".

His writing is about his mother, or for his mother, really. "I think a very primitive connection was made in my mind about poetry and loss. So all the writing I do is designed to, in a sense, repair it, but knowing that the repair can never quite be made."

He said, "interviews are weird, aren't they?" I was glad he'd noticed. He is both lovely and hard to interview because he really likes talking about his parents and poetry and not himself. He is on his third marriage and says that's it for him, thank you very much. He is blissfully happy and writing again like mad.

He is probably, he says, a romantic. Other than that he makes poets sound terribly dull. He says, well, they are really because they sit in rooms and think and don't go about killing dragons. He is not at all dull, of course. He's clever and charming and he might even have been known to tell the occasional joke. He said, perhaps wryly, "I do try and be funny in life! But not in poems."

- NZ Herald

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