The former UK Poet Laureate on a writer’s world and craft
In the unshowy world of poetry, a writer’s profile doesn’t rise much higher than being called on to be the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, an honorary position answerable to the Queen, tasked with writing commemorative poems for national celebrations and Royal happenings. Traditionally a role held until death, when Andrew Motion took over from Ted Hughes in 1999, he had one simple request: That he only serve a ten year term. Now five years free from the role, there are still few more famous poets on the planet (a tautology in itself?). As the 61-year-old makes his first visit to the emirate to speak and read at Dubai Litfest between Wednesday March 5 and Saturday March 8, we found out more about a writer’s life lived in the limelight.
On the gap between a writer’s life and work. ‘I’ve always felt that among the million things you don’t know about art and how it emerges, the one thing you do know is that it’s never just a conversion or expression of personality. There are always unfathomable mediations and transformations and transfigurations, which in ordinary life might be called deceptions, but in poetry are just called strategy.’
On the disappointment of meeting one’s literary heroes. ‘There’s always that danger – but sometimes very much not. To meet Seamus Heaney for instance was a wonderful experience, a kind of affirmation of all the things you like about the work. And I think with most Division One, League One writers, that seems to be so. However grumpy or withdrawn they might happen to be, there’s inevitably a kind correlation between the people and what they do.’
On being Poet Laureate... ‘It was daunting, and in so many aspects not enjoyable. But before I go on with that, I might as well say that I was very pleased and very proud to be asked to do it. But the kind of calculations I’d made before I was appointed couldn’t possibly come close to the reality that appeared to me. I sincerely underestimated the sense of invasiveness that I quite quickly came to feel. Which is the kind of thing which has pretty obvious social disadvantages, but for a writer it’s often very difficult to look if you feel very looked at. I think writing depends on being anonymous, being invisible, creatively lurking around the place, keeping your eyes open, not being observed in your observing.’
...and the effect it had on his work. ‘There is a real danger, a really serious danger, in doing these jobs. It can lure you into disastrously bad habits as a writer, and I felt that so acutely for the last two or three years as laureate that I more or less stopped writing. I went on doing the work stuff – visiting schools and judging completions, and all the drum-banging, bunting-arranging work that I should do, speaking up for poetry, all the sort of ambassadorial stuff. But I find it very difficult to feel that my true self as a writer wasn’t being massively interfered with. So I thought I’d just hide it away and keep it until my life changed again.’
On the place of poetry in schools. ‘I think there’s good and bad news. The good news is that [poetry is] more visible than it used to be, some of the old walls which used to make the enjoyment of poetry in schools difficult have been torn down. On the other hand I think that very often in schools, which is where a lot of people’s appetite for poetry is made or marred, there is a tendency for the stuff to be given to the kids in a way which makes it seem like an adjunct to another conversation they’re having. So it’s poetry about gender politics or the environment or whatever. Poetry doesn’t exist very often to spell out an exact proposition and that’s what teaching it in that way expects. And I think that has an absolutely catastrophic effect on people’s enjoyment of poetry.’
On The Poetry Archive, and being remembered. ‘The Poetry Archive for instance, which I set up – a poetry website in which poets read their own work and which now has this colossal number of visitors and which I’m still very closely involved in – that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been called laureate because I never would have been able to raise the money to set it up. So whatever else happens, I know I’ll lie on my deathbed thinking: well there’s that. And it has, in quite a profound way, begun to change the way that poems are taught in schools, in a direction that I think is the right one.’
On the charge that poetry is ‘irrelevant’. ‘That seems to me a terrible, tragic misapprehension of what poetry is, what it’s like, what its function is in human life. Poetry is as natural as breathing really, as a species we’re fundamentally attracted to rhythms and rhymes. And in particular we can’t do without a language which makes sense, but doesn’t need to spell an exact proposition. In its peculiarly accessible way that is something which poetry can reward us with – that sort of magical, mystical, even perhaps strictly speaking nonsensical quality that makes it so essential to us. Everything else in life wants us to know what it means. But poetry doesn’t do that, and I would say shouldn’t do that. And that’s its charm.’
On advice to budding writers. ‘Keep your eyes peeled and your ears pinned back. Think with your senses, don’t just write what you think, tell us what you think, thinking organically, sensually. Be modest, and accept that nearly everything you do is a form of failure. But use that knowledge to inform the next thing you do – and in Beckett’s very wise words, fail better next time.’ Visit The Poetry Archive here.