I went to see Andrew Motion reading his poetry at his alma mater St Anne’s College, Oxford, courtesy of the Oxford University Poetry Society, a few nights ago.
I have seen him read before and he reads beautifully. He also shared some of what he’s learnt about poetry, about his approach to poetry, which I found invaluably encouraging.
His subject, he told us after the reading, is what it means to be a sentient being in time. Luckily for him, he said, this means he feels a greater sense of urgency about writing as he gets older. He’s in his sixties now and wonders how many more springs he will see.
He read movingly about the death of his mother in a lengthy poem about the horse that threw her and caused her death. Some great images of how neglected the horse became, her hooves unshod and taking on the appearance of corrugated cardboard, in contrast to the meticulous grooming to which she was subject during her rider’s life.
It was an interesting and unobvious way into the subject of such a major loss. I’ve taken away a lot to think about. How does the neglect of a horse which accidentally killed his mother relate to his feelings about the loss? Is he expressing his guilt about surviving and enjoying his life, about not remembering her enough? I think so.
How complicated that the last remnant of his mother on the planet seems, or seemed, to have become the four-legged creature which killed her.
He read about his father, a man he seemed to disdain as the kind of Englishman who, when presented with a free few hours, will always suggest going out to kill something; a man who boasted of having read half a book in his whole life. But his poem about his father cutting the lawn and playing cricket with him and his brother, made it clear that his feelings for his father weren’t only critical.
He read about his wife, although, perhaps because she is not dead, this was the least revealing poem. That poem it seemed to me was more about recognising that life, in the trite saying, is not a rehearsal. If you want to go to Holy Island, then now is a better time than the uncertainty of next year.
He talked a bit about being Poet Laureate and how for the ten years he filled the post he was unable to write poetry and thought his poems were gone for good, another loss he grieved. But he said that a few weeks after he stepped down he became aware of a buzzing in his head, like planes waiting to land at Heathrow. He then wrote prolifically for a while. His pace has now slowed to pre-Laureateship levels.
I didn’t quite have the confidence to ask him any questions. I would have asked him about sonics. I would have asked him about the sound of his poetry and how important that is to him. I would have asked him about decorum in poetry. I would have asked him how to know the difference between learning the craft of writing poetry and trying to squish a square peg into a round hole.
A young man asked him how poets can ever know when a poem is finished. He said he thought that when a poem appears in a journal is one marker but that death marks the final edit.
He discussed his process too. He writes first thing in the morning, from about five thirty, when he is still half asleep, and, if I’ve understood him correctly, less likely to censor himself. This is a piece of advice I’ve seen before and have occasionally followed with some personally satisfying results.
For me the most important and exciting thing he said was something that he has apparently said before. He said he wanted his words to be clear, to look like a glass of water, which would only on being drunk reveal itself as full of gin.
This is exactly my ambition for my poetry.
It’s good to know that it’s an ambition that’s recognised as worthy, that I am following in credible, if large, footsteps. Doesn’t make it any easier though.
When I left Sir Andrew and the young man who asked about when a poem is finished were talking. I walked off into the night thinking that it was good someone was encouraging that young man especially when women are currently so dominant in the form.
But I still wondered nervously if his kind of poetry is a boys’ club.
Find Oxford University Poetry Society on facebook too. Before the reading they described themselves as ‘inclusive’ and they seem a friendly bunch.