I don’t know what I expected of a Poet Laureate, but as I sat under the vaulted roof of the John Rylands Library, silently studying Andrew Motion preparing to start his reading, I felt slightly cheated that he looked mortal: he carried a briefcase, could have been the lay member of an Ofsted team. But why was I surprised? The man is as human as his poetry.
Michael Schmidt introduced Andrew Motion as a man who ‘loved the art and not just the identity of being a poet’. Here is a poet who writes from experience, and is self effacing in sharing that experience with his audience. He talked of Sylvia Plath, describing Plath’s style of poetry as the yardstick of his formative years; but he had reacted against her style, had felt ‘bullied’ by it. He found his voice in something more personal. His personality, his humanity, is everywhere in his writing.
Asked how he made his choice of poetry to read, he chuckled and quoted his friend Philip Larkin: ‘Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, bring on the dancing girls.’ Well, I laughed, I cried and I tripped the light fantastic all the way home! Whether in his very evocative account of a visit to Ann Frank’s house, or in describing a surprise encounter with a tortoise, the man is present in his poetry; you can picture him in the situation that stimulated the work. With the rest of the audience, I laughed as his mother netted an enormous salmon during a holiday to Scotland. An ex-teacher, I smiled at the ‘child’s idea of an island…a green tear welling in a turquoise eye’. The sting of tears was present in the ‘Wish List’ to his late father, which included ‘your last word, which, though I held my breath, I did not hear.’
But mostly I was inspired by the modesty of a man who is untainted by his greatness.
At the end of the evening, I bought a copy of Motion’s biography of Keats, and waited in line for the signing. His eyes twinkled as he took the book and he made a remark about a useful doorstop. ‘The hero dies at the end, you know,’ he joked. The thing is, sometimes even knowing the ending can’t spoil a good read.
- Rachel Davies