Perpetual Andrew Motion
Tori Marchiony profiles former U.K. Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion. He’s five decades in and still finding room to grow.
Sir Andrew Motion is a preeminent poet, novelist, and biographer. He served as the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1999 to 2009 and received a knighthood in 2009.
Motion was born in London in 1952. He attended Oxford University, where he studied with W.H. Auden. He taught English at the University of Hull, where he met another illustrious poet, Philip Larkin. His 1993 biography of Larkin won the Whitbread Prize for Biography.
Known for his lyrical yet understated narrative verse, Motion began publishing poems while at Oxford, and released his first of nearly twenty collections in 1978. In 1999, he was named Poet Laureate of the UK, following in the footsteps of such luminaries as William Wordsworth, Lord Tennyson, and Ted Hughes. Unlike his predecessors, who served lifelong terms, Motion announced he would take the post for only a decade, during which time he played an active role in British cultural life.
While laureate, he founded the Poetry Archive, an online archive of poets reciting their own work. He has taught poetry at Johns Hopkins University since 2016.
Andrew Motion is a seasoned protector of poetry. Today he lives in Baltimore Maryland, but the first six decades of his life were spent in his native England, where from 1999 to 2009 he transformed the prestigious role of UK poet laureate from an honorary lifetime appointment to a short term mission-driven position. But just a few months after leaving the job, Queen Elizabeth the Second gave him a different life long title, a Knighthood. Making him Sir Andrew Motion. During his decade as poet laureate, Motion authored the obligatory verses commemorating royal weddings, funerals, and birthdays, including one widely mocked rap for Prince William’s 21st. But he also put his pen to broader social issues like climate change, homelessness, and labor. Another key achievement was his founding of The Poetry Archive. An online collection of poets reading their own work that’s accessed by millions of users each year. All of this to create a better understanding of poetry’s utility, its value.
Andrew Motion: Usefulness in poetry can be that it crystallizes the present and the way it helps us to understand it once it becomes the past. It can also be useful in inviting you by its nature to stand in somebody else’s shoes. So to see the world from a different point of view in that respect its usefully and innately liberalizing thing I think. So I feel pretty relaxed about the value and usefulness of what I do, but not at all relaxed about the readiness of other people to understand those things unless we’re able to explain this and justify it.
Motion got used to justifying poetry, almost as soon as he discovered it as a preteen. His father was a brewer and a World War Two veteran, an avid outdoorsman with an implicit mistrust of words. Poetry was the young Andrew’s rebellion.
Motion: I think it mattered to me enormously that poems were in those days and in that culture, quite definitely perceived as an effeminate thing to be interested in. In fact that was absolutely for me part of their attraction. And equally and oppositely one of the things I really didn’t like about my father’s world, though I loved the country bits of it, were to do with noise and shitey men and macho behavior and all this. My father was on the spectrum of those things, not of the extreme end, but he certainly knew a lot of people who were quite near the extreme end it seems to me. They’d all fought in the war, they’d all been freaked out by the war, and some more of its ways than others. And possibly some of their sort of wilder extremes of being masculine were to do with that. But you know I was growing up in the 1960s and wanted to grow my hair down to my waist, and did. And then when I had it to grow down to my waist. So there was something about the softening of the boundaries between gender roles, in the air that I had liked very much about the circumstances of… About sort of my generational moment if I could put it like that. And I guess that I’ve always tried to persevere in those ways of thinking about things.
Today, Andrew Motion is perhaps best known for his elegies, his poems of mourning. And though later tragedies would cement his impulse to memorialize, he traces his instinct for this back to his early childhood. At age seven he was sent to Maidwell Hall, a rather Dickensian boarding school a hundred miles from home.
Motion: It was absolutely awful, and it sounds very spoiled to complain about it in the way that I’m now going to because extensively is a mark of sort of a privileged upbringing to go to one of these places. But actually it did a huge amount of damage to me I think. I learned almost nothing because I was frightened for the next four or five years. You can’t learn anything when you are frightened. You can’t take in anything at all. I mean the routine of sort of beatings and punishments and so on, but it’s just… And if it hadn’t been so ghastly it would have been comical. And it was like a sort of an Evelyn Waugh novel gone berserk. So lots of physical violence, quite a lot of mucking about by the masters of us boys. I mean in a way that would get everybody put in prison now. Not learning anything a very long way away from home, not many visits from parents allowed so that two or three absolutely tear-jerking weekends a term where they’d come and take you out for a day and then put you back at night until your out the next day. One of those occasions in which the dread of leaving is always treading on the heels of the pleasure of the thing arriving, you know what I mean?
Motion: And the damage that it did to me, and I suspect in varying degrees to everybody there. Though I have since met one or two people who rather chided me for being so harsh about it to my astonishment. Which I only read as proof of how screwed up it’s made them actually. But what it did for me was to make me feel that life is inherently allegorical. That it’s always and only a matter of saying goodbye. Because that is what it made life like. Well that may be preparation for the grave of a kind, because it’s true that… That is the overall shape of life. But I think it squeezed quite a lot of the joy out of what ought to been the joyous bits of my life. I think it set a pattern of leaving in me, that was, that has been quite destructive for me. Because I think it made me feel that the only way to stay safe was to get out before the other person goes.
When Motion was seventeen, life confirmed this world view when his mother, Catherine was thrown from her horse during an otherwise unremarkable weekend hunt. She was left paralyzed with a head injury that brought her in and out of comas for the next nine years until her death in 1978. Motion has written about her frequently.
At Christmas I ran threw fire in blighty, carrying my old father across my shoulders. My mother too, she followed. You alive alas I could not bring. Flight attendants wear Santa hats or Rudolph ears and keep straight faces during the emergency drills. In the easy weeping that arrives with high altitude, grief is not too powerful a word. I grieve for you and the life left behind. The existence diminishing. I hear the series I fly through crackle like dry clay, and planets squealing on their pivots in deep space. I set my watch five hours behind, eventually, I sleep.
Today the sixty-seven-year-old Andrew Motion has known his mother on the page for longer than he knew her in life. And as he continues to write into the spaces death leaves, he instructs others on how to do the same. Since 2015, he’s taught at Johns Hopkins University, far removed from his once unsettlingly public profile in the UK, where for a decade the tabloids insured his private life was anything but. The country read along as a student accused Motion of sexual harassment, as he was cleared, and his second marriage fell apart. When he formed a new relationship, it was even fodder for the broadsheets. These days Motion and his wife, the linguist Kyeong-Soo Kim, are enjoying life away from the spotlight. It’s much easier to look after all when one isn’t constantly being looked at. In going forward, Motion says he’s content to keep reaching for the unreachable.
Motion: I’m very happy to be dissatisfied, and I want right up to the bitter end to feel that the poem I’m going to write tomorrow is better than any poem I’ve written yet.