An Interview with Andrew Motion

On April 8, 2016, Andrew Motion spoke with The Hopkins Review’s Lauren Winchester and David Yezzi at his home in the Fells Point neighborhood of Baltimore. He talked about his latest work, the Poetry Archive, and his recent move to the United States. Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1999 to 2009, he is currently a Homewood Professor of the Arts at John Hopkins.

Hopkins Review: The title of your forthcoming selected poems is Coming In to Land (Ecco, January 2017), but I understand that your first idea for the title was English Elegies. They both strike me as phrases that embrace the past but also make a valediction.

Andrew Motion: Well, they do. They both have that element of saying goodbye to England at a personal level, but also of saying goodbye to certain ideas of Englishness. “English Elegies,” incidentally, was one of the phrases that Wilfred Owen was considering using for the title of his book of poems, had he lived to see it.

HR: I was so struck by the poems in the voices of soldiers. I’m interested in your long poem “Peace Talks,” which is based on interviews with soldiers and family members.

AM: The main reason for choosing to base that poem on interviews was the same as shapes several other poems in the collection—poems that could all be described as being in some sense “found.” Which is to say: even the most well intentioned of us, writing about conflicts we’ve not been directly involved in, in which we haven’t worn a uniform, are likely to get into difficulties. The poems are bound to fall short of the experience they describe, and often parade the sensitivity of the author rather than concentrating on the subject. I thought one of the ways around this difficulty might be to include as much material voiced by the subject as I could, and treat it in such a way that I could make it both theirs and mine. A collaboration. I’m not terribly bothered by the idea of “mineness” in these found poems.

HR: In what sense?

AM: I mean that in these poems I’m not inclined to welcome the idea of the egotistical sublime. Originality, yes. We all want to be original. But I want the originality here to lie in the un-egotistical sublime. And perhaps not to be very sublime either, given the subject. War has its own way of being exhilarating, of course—remember Owen telling his mother “I fought like an angel”—but it’s not exactly sublime.

HR: That’s the Shakespearean sense, where unlike Marlowe or Jonson, you can feel that all throughout. Somehow Shakespeare has magically given the stage to the characters.

AM: That’s always been my ideal, even before I started to evolve this strategy to approach it. It’s the quality that Keats loves: negative capability. I see what I’m trying to do in these poems as a version of negative capability.

How did it work in practical terms? In practical terms, the poem began life as a radio program, for which my producer at the BBC arranged access to some British soldiers at their base in Bad Fallingbostel, in northern Germany. I’d tried to talk to soldiers before, in Afghanistan while the war was still on, but the MoD (the Ministry of Defense) wouldn’t let me go.

HR: Why not? Because you were a figure, and if you were in harm’s way . . .

AM: I suppose that may have been a part of it: I was Poet Laureate at the time. But they were perfectly happy to let war artists go to Afghanistan. . . . Maybe they were also wary because poetry by its nature is a more articulate, or a more articulating form. Anyway, as soon as I was no longer Laureate (I stood down in 2009 at the end of my ten-year stint), it all became easier. Initially I tried to go to Afghanistan, but by that stage everyone was leaving, so I went to this camp instead. The whole point was to write about the end of the British military involvement in Afghanistan, and the withdrawal. What effect did that have on individual soldiers? What did it say about the war? What did it about British power or the lack of it? That’s the other kind of English elegy I wanted to write—something about the shrinking post-imperial role.

Anyway, as I say, it was eventually decreed by the MoD that I would go to this camp about 40 kilometers north of Hanover. I flew to Hanover with my producer, and we were met by a squaddie, and as he drove us up the road from Hanover to Bad Fallingbostel I recognized various place names. I realized that I was travelling along the same route that my father had taken when he was fighting in the war. Because of this, the whole expedition became very powerfully underwritten by feelings about my dad, and by the very strong sense that I have of the difference between my own lucky life—the lucky lives enjoyed by everyone in my baby boomer generation—and the much less lucky lives of people in my father’s generation. This all came to a climax when we drove past a sign that pointed toward Bergen-Belsen, the concentration camp. My father was not directly involved in the liberation of Belsen, but one of the few things I can remember him saying about the war, as another of my poems mentions, is that he could smell it.

HR: I remember that poem. He refused to tell you about the smell.

AM: This added a whole new and deep layer to my time there. My producer and I spent about a week in and around the camp, and honestly it was one of the most intense and moving times of my life. But from a literary point of view, what immediately became apparent was that I didn’t yet have any clue about how to deal with the experiences I was having. Every day I sat down and talked to people for two hours each. And as I was talking, I realized there was likely to be absolutely nothing in their conversation that could go straight into a poem. Previously I’d thought—very naively—that some nice person from the BBC would simply type up what I was hearing, and I’d go through it with some sort of poetic Geiger counter, looking for chunks of raw Wilfred Owen. I’d thought that all I’d have to do was heat them up a bit, and they’d be my poem.

As it turned out, the people I was listening to had all, with one exception, left school very early; they had no wish or expectation or opportunity to be budding Owens. Furthermore, the army had literally drilled out of them the appetite to be articulate about their experience on the front line. The army does not want a lot of people mincing over the top, turning themselves into poets. It wants people to do what they’re told.

I thought about that, when I looked at the transcripts of our conversations that eventually materialized. My first instinct was to feel disappointed there was nothing richer there. Then I realized that was completely the wrong way to look at it; what I had to do was write poems about and out of the impoverishment of language.

HR: The poem “Finis,” which I found very moving, is about that. Throughout the poem, the speaker lists banal words—such as “knock,” “truck,” and “cold”—that no longer have any meaning for him.

AM: There’s also a little poem you may remember which is narrated by a woman I talked to, a medical orderly, who’d attended to a young Afghan boy who’d had his legs blown off when he trod on a land mine. She was clearly traumatized by this, and kept coming back to it in her conversation—without, in a sense, having anything to say about it. I found it very moving as I listened to her, but when I looked through the script of our conversation I found it even more compelling. I thought that if I could write well about it, I would be able to make a poem out of almost nothing. A nothing that was everything. And that’s what I tried to do. I wanted to write a poem showing in a sympathetic way that she was bereft of language to cope with the things she’d been through. There’s a bit in the poem, as you may remember, when she says they eventually took this little boy to an American camp where they saved his life. All she had to say about that was, with her eyes full of tears, “So yeah. Brilliant.” The whole world of suffering was somehow in that. I thought if I could present it right, then people would be able to see. That was the challenge. It brought to a climax lots of the thoughts I previously had about combining my own arrangements, my own words, my own editing, with the languages of other people.

HR: You talked to me once about this idea about listening to people’s voice, to the ways they speak, and noticing whatever facility or difficulty they have with language as well as the cadence of their speech. You have a sensitivity and interest in how a person’s speaking voice, or a poet’s speaking voice, might relate to the written word. In finding your voice as a person, you’re also in the process of finding your voice as a writer. Those two are connected.

AM: Exactly. When I say that talking to this medical orderly felt like the climax of something, I mean that as well as being the climax of my interest in writing “found poetry,” it also raised me to a new level of thinking about the sound of sense. This has been a preoccupation of mine for a long time now, and goes right back to my school days. I remember my genius English teacher, Peter Way, who died very recently, gave us a passage of the The Waste Land to read when I was about 16. I remember looking at it and thinking, “what the hell is this?” I was absolutely, completely baffled by it, coming from a very unliterary background. I hadn’t read many poems before, and I certainly had never seen anything like this. No doubt everyone else in the room was feeling much the same. Then he played us a recording of Eliot reading the poem, and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck begin to stand up. I recall thinking—not as articulately as I’m making it sound now—why is it that the page left me cold, but when it becomes a noise, it becomes emotionally interesting?

That was the beginning. Then when I was writing my graduate thesis on the poet Edward Thomas, I began thinking much harder about it all. In fact I wrote a whole chapter in my thesis about Thomas’s version of Frost’s “sound of sense.” Then twenty-odd years later I co-founded the Poetry Archive, which is a website on which poets read their own work—so as to make the acoustic element of poetry generally available in the easiest way I could imagine.

HR: What year was the Archive founded?

AM: We set it up about 16 years ago, and it’s been online about 10 years.

HR: It partnered at some point with the Poetry Foundation.

AM: We did a deal with the Poetry Foundation whereby they agreed to pay for the inclusion of about 150 American voices. It’s not a formal partnership, but it’s a friendly relationship, and I hope that now almost all those American voices are on the site, we can continue to develop it and record more people from here in the US and around the world. We’re always short of funds—we’re a charity—but that’s the idea.

HR: Are there poets you read differently because of how you understand the relationship of their own speaking voices to their writing?

AM: Yes, everybody. It’s inevitable, in every case. And I make it a central part of my teaching. I want to get my students talking more complicatedly about the effect of the acoustic world of poems. Even though we’re able to say interesting things about poems when we’re reading them on the page, we don’t get anywhere near to their full meaning unless we hear them aloud as well, unless we submit to that acoustic world. I admit this can be very difficult to talk about, because like smoke, it’s difficult to catch. But nevertheless, there are certain things one can say. You can talk about the quality of a voice, accent, speed and so on. But you can also talk about its unique music, or its theatrics as opposed to its apparent sincerity—and so on. It’s an intensely interesting area. Think of Anthony Hecht, and how theatrical his voice is—how in a sense made-up it is. More obviously so than all our voices are made-up.

HR: Very interesting and produced as the result of certain pressures of his upbringing and his experience of the war.

AM: Yes, it’s obviously the vocalizing of a very complicated emotional state, or set of states.

HR: The fact that it is, in his case, something of a more deliberate, or half-conscious creation, doesn’t make it inauthentic.

AM: I profoundly agree with that, in his case. And with that in mind, I might add that it makes me feel impatient when I hear people talking about performance poetry as something that’s completely other than the sort of poetry that Hecht, or you, or I write. Performance poetry and more formal kinds of poetry seem to me like points on a spectrum, rather than separate entities. That’s the best way to think about it.

There’s something else that’s worth saying at this point too, I think, even though it’s pretty obvious: hearing a poet read his or her work aloud can clear up certain sorts of muddles or obscurities. Philip Larkin on the whole is not an obscure poet, but there’s a line in “Lines On a Young Lady’s Photograph Album” in which he says “but o, photography! as no art is, / faithful and disappointing!” I was always a bit thrown by that, until I heard him read it. The way he inflects it is “but o, photography! as no art is,” because Larkin in his Larkin-like way didn’t think photography was an art. Which you don’t get from just looking at the page, unless you happen to agree with it in the first place. Which I don’t.

Larkin was actually very interested in sound, and not just in the voice-way we’ve been talking about. He was also a music critic. His jazz appetite stops at a very definite historical point, but before that, he was hungry as hell. He absolutely loved it.

HR: And really sought out recordings.

AM: Recordings of all kinds of things. We used to listen to them sometimes in the evenings, when I lived in Hull and got to know him in the late 1970s. Recordings of plays and poems, that is. I have a particular memory of looking up and seeing him on the other side of the fireplace with tears pouring down his face as we listened to Macbeth. It’s probably worth mentioning something about his stammer as a child here, and his deafness in later life. I remember him saying how painful it was for him not to hear the birds singing anymore. He lived in a very tender and delicately tuned sound world of his own. But the exterior sound world was terribly dimmed for him by the end.

When I say the end, though, we have to remember that he was only 63 when he died. 63! My age. If I were Larkin, I’d be dying about now, actually. What’s more, I would’ve written two poems—that were any good—in the last ten years. He’s a young poet, although he certainly doesn’t seem like one. He seems like everyone’s idea of a very old poet. But he effectively stopped writing when he was 53.

HR: Have any Americanisms seeped into your speech or your work? For example, in the memoir, your mother would correct you and say, “Don’t say ‘pardon.’ Say ‘sorry.’”

AM: I have in my mind very vividly what Auden did to his voice when he came to live in America, which is to adapt that very distinctive flat a. I think he got here and thought, “Right, that’s how Americans say grass, so I’m going to do that.” As far as I know, that’s the only sort of really serious tonal change that he made.

Soon before I left England, a school-friend wrote to me, someone I’d not seen since. His name is Hugh Lupton and he’s become a professional storyteller. His letter said, “I found a recording of you reading your poems at school at some event, and I’d like to include it in the CD I’ve go coming out. Do you mind?” I replied, “Yes, I bloody well do mind. Do not include it. But I’d be very interested to hear it, please send it to me.” And he did—obligingly. So I put it on my machine and there I was, about 17 years old, reciting some sub-Eliot thing I’d written. Except I didn’t really believe it was me, because it didn’t sound like me—and I know the sound of my own voice pretty well, having done lots of radio work and so on. I thought, he’s made a mistake.

But of course it was me. Two of my children came to supper not long after that, and I played it to them without telling them what it was. I said, “Who’s this?” They had no idea. The point I’m making here, in answer to your question, is that our voices change enormously whether we like it or not. I smoked cigarettes from the age of 8 to 53. So that no doubt changed my voice quite a lot. Then there’s age, which changes our voice. Then there’s our desire to fit in or not, and other kinds of acoustic influence. I sounded much more posh when I was 17 than I do now. It’s unlikely that I’ll choose the Auden flat a, but it’s possible of course that being here will affect me.

HR: What’s the difference mainly?

AM: Noise. America is so much louder than England. In a rather contrary spirit, I’ve started to mumble even more than I used to. Interestingly, I have heard one or two people say that Baltimore is especially loud. I think it’s possible that I’ll adopt certain Americanisms in order to join in, but it’s also possible that I’ll be counter-intuitively pushed in the opposite direction. We’ll see.

HR: There does seem to be the dynamic of leaving what one has understood to be one’s home. On the one hand, you’re happy for all the newness of it, and you feel so fortunate for the opportunity for this newness, which is so nurturing.

AM: I’ve found that very powerfully in the things I’ve been writing since I got here. I find myself doing two equal and opposite things. I find myself writing a lot about my early childhood. Quite short and formal things—sonnets even. I’ve also been rewriting a novella I published many years ago. All of which represent ways of repossessing and reorganizing my past there. At the same time, I’ve been writing poems about being herein America. Which formally speaking tend to be more free and adventurous. It’s going both ways.

HR: Pushing off, and yet a tenacious return in some ways.

AM: It’s my roots scrabbling around, wondering what to get hold of.

HR: I’ve found that, though I haven’t moved as far as you, I feel somehow connected to the very ground.

AM: That’s always been my way of being. It’s made complicated by the fact that although I was determined not to leave England snarling at it over my shoulder, I am very pleased to be here. There are a lot of things in England I don’t like and am very glad to get away from. I feel safely apart. That’s very liberating. I don’t miss it. I miss my friends very much, and I miss my children. But I’m surprised—shocked, even—by how little I miss England, especially since the Brexit vote. It’s there, and I can go and see it, but I don’t pine for it. And I’ve been slowly developing a sense of how beautiful Maryland is.

HR: So you are finding American subjects?

AM: Yes. Though actually what I’m feeling about Baltimore in particular is a version of what I was saying when we were talking about war poems. Which is to say: I’m aware of moving to a city which has wonderful qualities, but has terrible difficulties, terrible problems. Extraordinary and very alarming levels of violence. Amazing depths of inequality and deprivation. It would be absurd for me to arrive and five minutes later start writing about it as if it were “mine,” and I understood everything. It isn’t mine, and I don’t. Certainly not yet.

HR: You don’t see it in New York. You don’t see it in London, I suspect.

AM: London has its problems, but there’s nothing like this. And, as I say, it’s taking me a while to find ways of including it in poems. I have to find the right voice. It’ll take time, and meanwhile I’m reaching around. I’ve written one or two narrative-based things, and a few things for voices.

At the same time, I’m trying to tune myself in to American poetry— or rather to American poetries. There’s so much of it! And such a range. But across all its differences I do feel there’s a kind of busy-ness in common, a resistance (often) to clear narrative, a hopping-about-ness. An informality and yet a density. An impatience with the empirical, which we don’t find so much in English poetry. And of course there’s the foregrounding of identity, as well. Much of this I find very intriguing, but whether I can gather some of it into my own work remains to be seen. I’m quite an old dog, and maybe it’ll be difficult to learn new tricks. But maybe I don’t want to learn entirely new tricks? Maybe I want to do my old tricks under new kinds of influence? That would probably be a saner way to go.

HR: Hearing you talk about what you see as you move around Baltimore, that kind of gets into the ground water.

AM: Indeed, it does. But as I say, Baltimore isn’t the only subject I have in mind. I’m also interested in writing about homesickness (when it occurs), as well as memories of home. What it feels like to be uprooted. The very first night my wife and I arrived here, in July 2015, we sat outside having dinner with our very nice neighbors. I had never seen fireflies before. I’d never had this feeling of warm evening air blowing through my own home before. And every five minutes the police helicopter would go overhead, and its long finger would poke around, making impromptu connections between different parts of the city. I thought, well that actually is not a bad way of thinking about how a poem might work. I have to feel my way. But at the same time, I’m determined to get hold of it somehow.

HR: Dropping yourself into the middle of it bespeaks a full commitment. There’s a way in which when you come to live in Baltimore, you’ve made the choice already. You may not have a choice not to take up the subject.

AM: I feel totally committed to being here. This is my home now. I didn’t wander over the Atlantic thinking, I’ll be here for a while and then I’ll go back. I want to stay. There are all kinds of reasons for that, including the fact that my wife, Kyeong-Soo, is an American citizen and feels happier here than she did in England. But I have my own individual reasons to prefer being here as well. One of them is: I don’t know where it will take me. One of the difficulties I came to feel about living in England was that I mostly did know what lay in store for me. Here in Baltimore I don’t know what to expect. And of course I mean that in small personal ways—new routines to learn and so on. And also in much larger and more complicated ways. Political ways. As we were saying, the tensions in Baltimore, the disparities in the city, the inequalities in the city, are visible absolutely everywhere you look. They’re obvious at the checkout counter, the gas station, behind the windshield of the cars passing by. But Baltimore inspires loyalty too, or has in me. Loyalty and affection, immediately. It makes me want to do my bit.

HR: This is a place where that has come to a head, playing out for the good.

AM: Absolutely.

HR: I’d like to talk why you find the elegy so compelling. In the Blood was an elegy to your mother in prose, and you’re teaching a graduate course on elegies now. And you’re editing an anthology of elegies for Penguin. And of course, Coming In To Land is full of elegies.

AM: What is poetry for? One of the main things is preservation, or possibly resurrection. I’ve always thought my subject wasn’t so much people dying as it was how to preserve them. As far as I can tell, my poems are mostly about what it’s like to live in time, knowing that time will end. And it’s certainly true that all the poems I like best by other people are about living in time and knowing that time will end. Or about an individual’s end of time, their death. This implies a kind of restriction, perhaps, but of course there are infinite ways of writing elegy. You can be stricken and heartfelt, but you can also be entertaining and even funny.

I was talking about this not so long ago with an English poet-friend. We got on to it because she said, “all poems are love poems.” I said that I knew what she meant, in the sense that poems hold out their hand to the reader and say, “Take this, and I’ll lead you somewhere interesting.” But really and truly I think all poems are elegies. What else is there? That’s it, isn’t it?

HR: There’s really just one subject.

AM: If you get your poem right, it’s a temporary stay against that one subject. Against death, I mean. If you get it really right, and this is the ideal, you write something that will outlive you. I can’t think of anything I would like more, when I’m lying on my last bed, than to think I’d written one or two things that would go on after me. That’s what all this effort is for. The End. Don’t you think?

HR: I do. I think it’s all about creating communication that outlives you, that speaks to people, that speaks to life.

AM: I almost never read poems, even the poems I find most fascinating, and think, “I’ve never thought that before, and that’s why I like what’s in front of me here.” I read them and enjoy them and think, “That’s right.” Poetry is curiously and fundamentally about recognition.

HR: Given that the great subject is aging, the project is to make something that’s alive.

AM: That’s what all the best people do. They look at things square and say, “The curtains are closing, but I’m going to live forever in what I have to say about it.”