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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Motion's Spoken

Monday, November 13, 2006

If the previous Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, brought publicity to the role because of his private life, the current Laureate, Andrew Motion, has made himself very deliberately into a public intellectual and literary commentator. In recent weeks, he has made the headlines with everything from the publication of his new autobiography to his comments on literary archives to his choice of books teenagers should be reading to his complaints about the decline of poetry.

Andrew Motion came to Newcastle last week to lecture on "Reading for Life: Children, Books and Culture." If nothing else, this was an opportunity to put a three-dimensional face and a speaking voice to a dominant name in British letters. His lecture was authoritative and light-hearted in equal measure, and centred on his own experiences of reading as a child, particularly the moment when, reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he realised that beneath the story were submerged depths of symbolism. Although reading is something which develops cumulatively rather than being revolutionised by the turn of one page, all writers like to have a work which they point towards as being the one which changed them from a reader to a creator of literature. For my (humble) self, I maintain that the most significant book I have read (or, rather, had read to me), was Goodnight Mr. Tom, by Michelle Magorian. It was this book that taught me that a story can be ambiguous, can initiate complex and contradictory responses which have a moral effect quite unlike that experience which comes with the predictable "happy ending" of fairy tales. At the end of his reflective lecture, Motion read an elegy to his recently departed father; Goodnight Mr. Tom was the source for one of the earliest poems I wrote as a mature reader and writer, and it, too, is dedicated to my Dad (thankfully, still very alive).

Emotionally, then, I am very much in sympathy with Motion. Where I differ is from his conservative and, in my opinion, slightly naive sense of the political and cultural scene as it stands today. The second part of Motion's lecture was a complaint about the relative absence of poetry from our cultural life. Working regularly in primary and secondary schools, Motion noted that younger students have a terrific ability to imagine and embrace all sorts of subjects and forms in creative writing, but that this is often stifled when, at puberty, the imagination suddenly becomes uncool, and is no longer moulded by schools with an eye on league tables and model G.C.S.E. answers. Children are often voracious readers and writers, but once they get older we are happy for them, in Motion's wonderfully caustic phrase, to "Scrape along the C/seabed of expectation."

So far, this is entirely understandable and a common argument. But Motion takes it one step further, arguing that young people should also be reading books such as Ulysses and The Waste Land. Because of this, the "elitist" bullet has predictably been fired at him by social commentators in the press, and he backtracked somewhat in his lecture, admitting that when he made the list for the Royal Society of Literature of the ten books he thought they should be reading, the "they" he had in mind were those who would go on to study English at university. Nevertheless, he said, he wanted his list to be a defence against shrinking horizons, to say to children - in a way that was not said to him at school - that anything is out there to be read, that there is no such thing as a specifically adult book. Again, this may be commendable in theory, but in practice it is slightly naive: would Motion be responsible for the bullying that would be directed at anyone at a state secondary school who has a copy of Joyce in his bag, rather than a Playstation Portable? One suspects that, although Motion has spent a lot of time running creative writing classes in primary and secondary schools, these have generally taken place in the classrooms of inspirational teachers, and not behind the bike sheds, where the only rhythms to be heard are those of growing masculinity. Indeed, even at university the number of people who read Ulysses, let alone actually enjoy the lengthy experience, is probably smaller than Motion believes; certainly (as I will talk about in my next post) this postgraduate is not alone in never having completed it. And Motion noticeably failed to discuss whether, if good adult literature is automatically available for children, it is a good thing that adults today seem as likely to be reading His Dark Materials or Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter as Wuthering Heights.

However, I believe Motion was on the right track when he suggested that one of the reasons for the decline of poetry (and good literature generally) from the life of individual readers is that it is no longer used by people in public life. If politicians were subtly to start to highlight the importance of reading as a democratic principle (as Gordon Brown has done), letting us glimpse the plural lives of others, then we might have more respect both for politicians and for books. Likewise, Motion has pointed to cult musician Pete Doherty's announcement that poetry saved him whilst he was in prison. Motion notes that young people have locked onto the concept of the "troubled young genius who gives up their life to their work." Implicitly, he is suggesting that the Romantics (drugged up on opiates, troubled and passionate) ought to be every bit as accessible to youngsters as a Baby Shambles album. However, one is sceptical as to whether Motion would follow this logic to its logical conclusion: if poetry deals in pop's business, would he be willing to teach music lyrics to his English Literature students at Royal Holloway? One suspects he would not go this far, although to be fair to Motion, he did review Christopher Rick's study of Bob Dylan in positive tones.

Nevertheless, even though Motion does not quite convince me as an architect of change, that is not to say that I do not appreciate his efforts; his lasting legacy will be to have turned the laureateship from an outmoded and quaint role (with its annual terse of wine as payment) into a serious and central platform from which to speak on literary issues of the political day. When Motion steps down, let's hope he is replaced by someone who is fully attuned to the media and popular culture. After all, poets above all other professions should be great spin doctors for literature.

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Posted by Alistair at 10:13 am


Anonymous Anonymous said...


I must agree about the lack of good poetry, but one point I didn’t see in the links or in your post is the lack of much form – or discipline — of the poets of today. There is, in my opinion, way to much free form poetry. I do not think our schools teach students about things such as iambic pentameter, beat, feet, or stress anymore.

So much of the poetry of the youngsters is full of anger, but it really has no feeling. Don’t get me wrong, radical poetry has it place, for as Motion said, … Blake, Shelley, the young Wordsworth and the young Coleridge were the fiery radicals, but compare a poem such as The Mask of Anarchy by Shelley with any poem written by a "radical" today.

I found this line interesting: Keats was a limp-wristed voluptuary, sickening on a sofa while others leapt to the barricades. Wrong, I thought - and set off to prove it.
If you read the book by Motion, did he prove it? I will put it on my “to read list” (getting longer and longer, thanks to this blog…).

Also his mention of Wilfred Owen, as I just wrote a paper on the “war-poets” of WWI compared with some of the poets from WW II.

I had previously read your poem Reading at night on my very first visit to you blog – it was enjoyable reading it again tonight. Please see my comments above about “feeling,” as this poem is a good example.

all writers like to have a work which they point towards as being the one which changed them from a reader to a creator of literature
Readers too! For me, Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge which I found when I was 19 or 20 years old in a train heading toward Rome, over 30 years ago. I read it again every 5 years or so – the same copy that I found on that train.

As for the reading lists, I’m not sure that there is much difference in what is on the list – as long as the kids read something. The bigger problem is making sure that they are exposed to reading, and hopefully will continue later in life.

Your comment: the imagination suddenly becomes uncool,…
This shows it’s ugly head even more so in my area when the black kids think imagination, or learning, is uncool because it’s white. Even in the schools in my county that have a majority of black students.

5:05 am  
Blogger Ishmael said...

That's a very good point about form, or the lack of it, and certainly I never learnt about much more than iambic pentameter. And one of the strange ironies of the relationship between popular verbal culture (rap, pop music etc) and poetry is that the former rely on a programme of (cliched?) material, images and rhythms, whilst the more "literary" margins of poetry writing have utterly eradicated these qualities.

Interestingly, I was listening to a radio programme about two Muslim poets based in the U.S., and their work - heavily influenced by rap - was in some ways "traditional" poetry, rhythmic and rhyming, although they were very didactic and unsubtle in their use of imagery. In fact, it was an example of what you say: poetry full of anger, but without any attempt to explore and describe the source of that attitude, the feeling impulse at the heart. Then again, if, as you say, the imagination is seen as a privilege of the white, I suppose it is a good thing that the underprivileged (indeed, castigated) Islamic culture is finding its cultured and sensitive voice through the imagination (whether this lay behind Orhan Pamuk's Nobel Peace Prize I am not qualified to say).

I haven't read the book by Motion, though I know it's supposed to be a fine study and enjoyable read. I have just finished reading Terry Eagleton's How to Read a Poem, however, which is interesting in two senses. Firstly, the pre-eminent literary critic in the UK has suddenly swerved away from broad theories of Marxism etc. and has gone back to close reading and practical criticism (and jolly good some of his readings are too). Secondly, and what Eagleton intended by writing the book, he conveys a real passion for the poetic form, and the qualities it possesses which (though I wasn't quite convinced by his arguments) ordinary language does not. He argues that too much emphasis in schools and universities is placed on what a poem says (and World War One poetry is a typical target of this mode of criticism) and not enough on how it says it, which, Eagleton shows, may be the vital dimension of the "what it says."

Incidentally, one of Eagleton's studies was of the Hyacinth Girl passage from The Waste Land. Reading that again, I realised how utterly beautiful, and strictly formal that poem is. And I think today Eliot would probably be horrified that the effect found in this paradigm which helped to set up the modernist poetic project has been lost by much of the current generation of avant-garde poets.

Having lamented that, I do sense that with writers such as Don Patterson and Simon Armitage in this country, there is a return to tightly constructed verse. Indeed, Armitage has recently gone right back to the origins of English poetry, and adapted "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." From the passage republished in The Guardian, this promises to be every bit as invigorating as Heaney's Beowulf. Perhaps we are turning full circle, and poetry is going back to its origins: to tell a story to a group of listeners (Armitage's poem is broadcast on Radio 4 on December 21).

1:10 pm  

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