Page last updated at 16:09 GMT, Monday, 27 April 2009 17:09 UK

Last words of a Laureate: Motion bows out

Andrew Motion
Motion has written eight royally commissioned poems while in office

After 10 years, eight royal poems and 700 bottles of sherry as payment, Poet Laureate Andrew Motion steps down from the role at the end of April.

He looks back at his experiences while in the post, both good and bad, and offers up a bit of advice for his successor.


How do you feel about stepping down?

Part of me is very relieved to give it up because it has taken over my life in a very profound and all-consuming way. Any writer is likely to be defensive about the time that they need for writing and I'm pleased to be able to have the prospect of a bit more of that.

On the other hand, I'm very sorry to be giving up the opportunity to stand in a public place and shout about the things I believe in and expect people to listen.

What have been the highs and the lows?

Let's get the lows out of the way because, low as they seemed, they very quickly evaporated. Having your life picked over is a kind of low.

Having to pitch poems about difficult subjects, poems about events in the royal calendar, into a place where they are simply bound to get bounced regardless of their merit, those things have a certain tiresomeness.

The highest of the high points has been the opportunity to set up the poetry archive which is this web based database of poets reading their own work.

Last month over 150,000 people were using it in a regular way - by which I mean not just people logging on thinking it was something to do with poultry - they really meant to be there.

This new fangled thing the web has established two very beautiful ancient truths about poetry - one is that people like listening to it and reading it, and the other is that a poem has as much to do with the sound it makes as it does with what the words mean on the page.

You wrote eight special poems while laureate. Are there any of which you're particularly proud?

Overall, I think of them as left-handed poems written by a right-handed poet. Some of them don't work at all well.

I tried to write something for Prince William's 21st birthday in the style of a rap, because I thought "he's a young person and I'll do it in a kind of humorous way" and I wish I hadn't done it really, I wish I'd stayed on the higher ground.

I'm pleased with the poems I wrote for the Queen Mother's 100th birthday and her death and the poem for Charles and Camilla when they got married. I see that one really as a partner poem to the one I wrote for Princess Diana when she was killed, which I actually wrote before I was appointed poet laureate.

They are very difficult poems to write - the sense of "commissionedness" is almost overpowering. You write them knowing that the great majority of people reading them will judge them not on how good or bad the poem is but on how the reader happens to feel about the royal family.

Should the post continue?

The post should most emphatically continue because for all its oddities it is the single most high-profile thing that exists on behalf of poetry.

A 10-year tenure is a good time because allows a big project like the archive to get up and running.

I'm sure my successor will interpret the role in a different way and good for them. I mean to stay deeply involved in the things I've become involved in but in a way that I hope does not become an obstacle to my successor.

What advice do you have for your successor?

The single thing that I wish someone had sat me down and talked to me about before I started this, is having the authority to say no.

It's very important for the person doing this to feel that they are allowed to keep time for their own work.

There was a time in the middle of my laureateship where - because it was so busy, and I felt so looked-at and it was all so demanding - I stopped writing poems. The disconnection between the hours every week that I was spending in schoolrooms and on podiums saying poetry was a wonderful thing and not having time to write it was a very painful thing to go through.

I would say to my successor, be fierce and be valiant in protecting time for you.

What would you like people to see as your legacy?

My legacy on the "doing" side of the job is profoundly to do with the archive and I'd want to think I'd made some difference to the way in which poets get into schools on a more regular basis.

And then there's the writing side to the job. As I leave my position, I've just published a new book of poems of which I'm proud.

I'm very happy to come out of this feeling that my connection with my impulse to write poems is intact and re-energised. I'm writing more poems than I ever have before.

I feel able to say what anyone leaving a big job like this ought to be able to say which is, I'm very glad I did it and I'm very glad to be leaving it.

Andrew Motion was speaking to BBC Arts Correspondent Rebecca Jones.



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