By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine
Poetry is perennially on the ropes, a pensive, esoteric artform in a world absorbed by novelty and new media. But Poet Laureate Andrew Motion says it can resonate with all ages and an unlikely ambassador for the young is a certain Pete Doherty.
Andrew Motion: "Elitist is a word that's become terribly corrupted"
It's not often that you get to chat to someone in the place where they're going to end up when they're dead. Particularly when it's the Poet Laureate.
Andrew Motion is in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, the valley of the kings for English poetry, surrounded by the statues and memorials commemorating generations of writers.
It is the atmospheric setting for an event to mark National Poetry Day, with readings by the laureate and a collection of actors, including Patricia Routledge and Donald Sinden.
So how does it feel for Andrew Motion to be here?
First of all, it's not a foregone conclusion that the poet, or his memorial, will end up in Poets' Corner, he says. There is a posthumous assessment process which decides on admission.
And this raises the unhappy prospect of bad reviews haunting writers even after their death.
Mr Motion, a lean, rather wry figure, stalks around a stage set up in Poets' Corner, flanked by a statue of Shakespeare and beside a medieval wall painting of a doubting apostle.
"But I'd be thrilled to end up here," he says, in the company of the likes of Wordsworth, Tennyson and Betjeman. "Although of course they're a mixed bag."
Does it give him a sense of his own mortality? "I don't need any encouragement for that," he says.
But he says that he has a strong sense of continuity with the previous generations of poets gathered in Poets' Corner - and he describes their presence as a "silent forcing-house" for his own work.
The job of being poet laureate is a strange one - a public responsibility for a very private form of writing. And Mr Motion says that being public property can cause problems.
Apart from disliking "people poking around my private life", he says that it can make it difficult for a writer to remain as an anonymous observer.
"It's very hard to look when you feel you're being looked at," he says. And he describes the uncomfortable sensation of being watched by people waiting to see if he's writing a poem.
But he is a committed ambassador for poetry - and in particular says he wants to defend the type of literary writing that isn't immediately easy to understand.
Poets' Corner commemorates writers back to Geoffrey Chaucer
"Elitist is one of those words that has been terribly corrupted," he says.
And he says that defending more complex, challenging writing is as much a necessity as the business of broadening poetry's appeal.
Poetry's popular standing was given added street-cred recently when singer Pete Doherty said that poetry was his great salvation when in prison.
"The idea of the troubled young genius who gives up their life to their work is something he seems to have locked onto," says Mr Motion.
And he hopes that Doherty's enthusiasm for poetry will make it more acceptable for youngsters.
"With boys especially, they'll listen to music, but when a poem is put in front of them, they're nervous about it," he says.
Andrew Motion says he began writing poetry as a teenager - triggered by his mother being badly hurt in an accident. And he says his own writing still has maternal associations.
So engrossed is he in discussing his passion, a congregation has amassed behind us in the pews of the abbey and sit, patiently waiting in the big silences you can get in cathedrals. They're going to hear a piece of his writing which has been put to music.
It's a rather sepulchral moment.
"I'm perfectly comfortable with the idea that I might not be here forever, but if my name was unveiled here, it would be a good day in heaven, I guess," he says, surrounded by the alabaster and marble memorials to his predecessors.
Ambassador for literary talents, Pete Doherty
Many of the poets remembered here are actually buried elsewhere - and he says that his own sense of mortality is much more acute when visiting where his own family are buried.
"I stare at the patch of ground where I will be, next to my dad, as he and I used to stare at the patch of the ground in which he now is. Nobody exactly wants to die... on the other hand, there are days."
"It doesn't freak me out at all. But to be here, the honour of it would be enormous."
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
Andrew Motion was my English tutor at Hull in 1980 and Philip Larkin used to prop up the bar in Staff House at the end of a day in the library there. Whereas Andrew was the young academic poet on the 'up' - Larkin cut a sombre, rather unapproachable and conservative figure - and yet for me, 'Aubade' now sums up perfectly my sentiments in middle-age. If Andrew Motion can leave a comparable poetic legacy then he'll deserve his place in the Abbey with or without the approbation of the likes of the fashionable Pete Doherty!
Roy Woodland, Knutsford
I have always been proud to have read, and written, poetry. I am only 42, but there is a kind of snobbery and ignorance regarding this subject. I personally feel it is important to express oneself and it is a recording of one's own feelings at a certain time in their lives - it is very therapeutic.
Carole Young, Glasgow, Scotland
I read Mr Motion's comments and found myself nodding in agreement at the screen. Some text should be as simplistic as possible, instruction manuals? Everybody should read at least one piece of writing they find challenging every day.
Oh and I don't believe I am related to Mr Andrew Motion.
Fraser Motion, Glasgow
I agree wholeheartedly with Motion's defence of complex, challenging writing. It's a great disservice to everyone to assume poetry must be written in simplistic language or a populist style to be accessible and 'understood' by many, and is itself elitist. Poets don't set out to confuse and alienate people but to craft language to express and inspire, so getting shot of the notion that long words and different levels of meaning are too high minded for the masses is essential.
I didn't "get" poetry until I started listening to lyrics by singers such as Jacques Brel and Nick Cave. Then I realised that the distance between the two forms is very small. Unfortunately I was not, save for the inspiring efforts of one teacher, taught about modern poetry at school, and thus failed to see how it might be relevant to my life. That time is now long gone and I look forward to many more happy hours of discovery!
Mike H, London
It's words, all words; I love them, play with them and think endlessly about them. I think we all use form expressing ourselves. I delight in the first expressions of the very young through to the old, constructing their own interpretations and expressions. Oh that we might all, enjoy a level of Mr Motion's cleverness.
John Davey, Wairoa New Zealand
An advert in a book-chain a few years ago sums it up for me: Peotry is to prose what dancing is to walking.
Rap or Rock lyrics are just poetry set to music, nothing new there, what would be new would be having people understand that.
Closet poetry fans the lot of us...
Dan Breen, Peterborough
There seems to be an underlying pessimsim to this post that I find rather strange. The opening paragraph begins by claiming poetry is "on the ropes", and much of the article talks about how we need new ambassadors to poetry to make it popular once more. But this is simply not true. Poetry is more popular now than it ever was. You only have to search the internet to find huge numbers of people trying their hand at it. Do they do this to to copy Mr. Doherty? No, they do it because they enjoy it. If, as someone nicely expressed above, poetry is to prose as dancing is to walking, are we likely to ever forget it? People will always walk, and always talk... so it follows that some people, at least, will try and take those activities further. We will never persuade everyone to like or understand poetry, probably not even a majority, but that does not mean it is dissapearing. And if I haven't persuaded you on this score, then I might at least say this - constantly complaining about the state of poetry won't save it. What will save poetry is getting out there and writing some.
Alex Wade, Leics
Poetry is one area of creative life where you can express yourself without regard to what anyone else has said or written before you. Poetry is not a competition. Writing allows you to follow thoughts in word tracks which represent your feelings and observations in a unique way. It is both liberating and satisfying. It is a legacy which we receive and in turn pass on to others.
Jean Pestell, London
Poetry is vitally important. It is a window into the diverse meanings language can have, into the deeper areas of Man's soul. On a practical level, the more effort that is needed to extract the meaning from a passage of text, the more likely it is that the meaning will stick.
However, I didn't truly "get" poetry until I studied Latin and Greek verse. More and better education in language will help us all, and poetry is the best place to start.
Giving up your life to your art is a pretty quaint idea in a world where Pete Doherty's songs sell mobile phones and the drugs can be traced back to war-torn countries. The B-shambles frontman is a bad idea recycled, and a more interesting topic would be the struggle to work as a poet or artist in the context of a globalised, business-dominated world.
Many song writers /lyricists are not referred to as poets and I sometimes wonder if this is the choice of the artist - perhaps being a 'poet' in popular music is not sufficiently 'cool' - or whether it is because the elitist establishment do not want 'pop singers' labelled as poets. Anyway, Bob Dylan surely merits being labelled as a poet of immense talent, his work covering life, love and death in all its glory.
David Scarlett, Braintree, Essex
Poetry I have always loved and sometimes tried my hand at. Well written, it puts thoughts concisely and memorably, rythmically: it also allows the mind to expand around the ideas and can be inspiring.
Rome Godwin, London W14
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