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Making connections, metaphorically

by
18 January 2013

Sir Andrew Motion appears at the Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature in February. He talks about God, nature, and language to Jo Browning Wroe

WHEN Hugh Haughton, Professor of English at the University of York, heard that Sir Andrew Motion, his friend from undergraduate days, had written a sequel, Silver, to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, he was worried.

To their mutual relief, however, Professor Haughton, a big Stevenson fan, loved Silver, and remarked on something that has given Motion pause for thought, and us a starting point for our conversation.

"He said that, about three pages in, he realised that Silver was entirely to do with what my work has always been about, which was resurrection. You resurrect the original story, and you resurrect some of the characters, and you try and find a way of adapting it to make it live in the present.

"I think that there is apparently something in my way of being that is very interested in locating certain things in the past - by which I mean both exploring the continuities between things in my present, and their relationship with things in the past - and also finding out what it is in the past that I value."

If you have read Motion's memoir In the Blood, you will recognise this impulse in the startling detail of a country childhood, a bewildering boarding-school education, and his mother's riding accident, which put her in a coma for much of his adolescence, and from which she never recovered.

As he was raised in rural England by parents deeply connected to the countryside, you can also see that he might care enough to take over from Bill Bryson the presidency of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), as he did last June. This same urge to reconnect with his childhood and rediscover its treasures also motivated Motion - along with his wife, Kyeong-Soo Kim - to return to church.

 

"I HAD started going again intermittently, because, as a child, I went a lot, because that's what my parents did, and those were the sorts of schools I went to. I just took what came, like kids tend to do - we have the parents we have, and we have the schooling we have.

"I'd been a few times, and I just got so exasperated by hearing morons trivialise these profoundly interesting and important things, and give sermons that they really should have been giving in kindergarten. . . I knew if I was ever going to get any of this stuff, I was going to get it through some sort of engagement with the aesthetic. I knew that language would do a lot of the work in and of itself."

On the advice of a fellow-poet and friend, Wendy Cope, he went to St Paul's, Covent Garden, where, at that time, the Revd Mark Oakley was Rector. "He's the best sermoniser I've ever heard," Motion says. "And he's funny, and he knows a lot, and he's lived."

In 2008, after three years as the Archdeacon of Germany and Northern Europe, Fr Oakley returned and was appointed Priest-in-Charge of the Grosvenor Chapel, Mayfair. Motion started to attend there, enjoying the choir and the organist as well as the preaching. But when, in 2012, Fr Oakley became a residentiary canon at St Paul's Cathedral, he decided not to follow.

"I found it a hard place to worship in a regular way, because it's so big. It's not cosy. It's magnificent, and it's very well suited to great state things, but if you're like me, and you want to sink down, it doesn't allow that to happen."

 

AFTER a pause, he says: "I have to tell you, I don't really believe in God. I feel a bit of a fraud in some respects. I cannot say the Creed. . . I do not think Jesus Christ was the Son of God; I do not believe in the life everlasting. My interest, or whatever the word is, is not to do with literal truths of that kind.

"What I go and do every week, what I feel very grateful to do - well, there's all the sorrys for nonsenses you've made of your life, trying to be better, all that kind of thing. That focusing I value, but mainly what I do there is sit in a very emotionally charged way, and think about the ways in which human beings have a fathomless, topless, and bottomless appetite for devising structures in which they can think about larger things than themselves. And I find that incredibly touching.

"So my religion is not a God-down one, but a people-up one. But that feeling of aspiration, and of gratitude for big shapes of thought are incredibly, importantly, fed for me by beautiful music, by beautiful words, by things which have been handed from mouth to mouth, by hand to hand, and generation to generation."

I ask if his laureate legacy, the Poetry Archive - a scheme to gather the recordings of poets reading their own work - was fuelled by a similar sense of the need to preserve things of value for future generations.

"Indeed, while it might seem as though my life is a bit of a mishmash of commitments now - Poetry Archive, teaching, writing and the CPRE - actually, they all converge on the same point. . . It has a great deal to do with childhood, and what I learned as a child: feeling that my identity, my imagination, my sense of my whole self, depends to a quite peculiar degree on feeling attuned with natural things - that they are available to me and I am available to them - thinking of myself as a member of a species moving among other species."

And does he feel strongly that everyone should be able to benefit from these things? In relation to both the Poetry Archive and the CPRE, he talks about access.

 

"THAT is certainly true. I'm glad you've picked up on that, because I do feel very democratically inclined about these things. I said to them, very soon after I started at CPRE, that I wanted my rock in the road to be about access, because I know the kids in this street have no idea what the countryside is - they've never been there. They don't know what there is to like; they don't know what there is to protect, either.

"I think our appetite for these things, whether it's the language of poetry, or our feeling of connection with the natural things, the earth, is very, very primitive and fundamental, and, no matter how urban we might be, and no matter how much schools might have knocked our literary appetites out of us, they are nevertheless very primitive.

"I think that's where language - language as manifested in the Archive, and the language of speaking about nature - meets. Because poetic language, whatever else it is, whatever else poetry is, is metaphorical language, and metaphorical language, by its nature, partakes of natural objects.

"Historically, this has been a much more obvious connection than it is now, with the majority of us living in towns. Perhaps that will change, but I suspect what will happen is that we find natural things in urban settings become our clichés and recurring tropes, our eternal truths, our touchstone phrases.

 

"It's not surprising to find that all those things, historically, are things that partake of nature, because that's where people lived. So, all the time, trying to establish what this primitive appetite might be, this fundamental need might be, poetry and it, poetry and wherever CPRE go, should go hand in hand; or they do for me, and I suspect they do for the great majority of people, whether they realise it or not."

 

TRYING, as a poet, to connect with, and articulate, these deep feelings of connectedness did not sit easily with his position as Poet Laureate. Motion has made no secret of the fact that it was difficult, both creatively and personally.

"I felt so unhappy, most of my time as Laureate, for a combination of reasons. Personally, everything in my life was in a mess, and I felt crushed by guilt and anxiety during that time - half crushed, anyway; but also as though I must courageously carry on, keeping going, doing stuff for all of those ten years - slightly embarrassed, slightly ashamed of myself, and more than slightly pissed off that I knew all the stuff that I had to do, in order to make sense of the role, had to be done in a way which rather went against my natural grain. . .

"Poetically, I found it extremely discomforting. The whole notion of 'subjects' in poetry is rather a dodgy one. I don't much like the idea of poems with subjects, but, of course, as Laureate, you have to foreground a subject."

It was not the subject-matter of his poems during this time that troubled him, but, rather, the way in which he felt expected to write. "I felt that I had to go through the front door of the subject. That's not good for art . . . It's against art in some quite fundamental way. . . What turned out to be my censorship was my feeling that I had to write a certain sort of poem, or engage with subjects in a certain kind of direct way. It doesn't suit me, and it doesn't suit poetry."

 

SO, IS he pleased with his latest collection, The Customs House - his first since he stepped down as Poet Laureate?

"I feel very proud of it, and I feel very liberated by it. And there are plenty of poems in there that have subjects, of course, but I didn't feel I had to write about them in that sort of head-on way. To give an example, there's a poem late in the book about whales ["Whale Song"]. It's a poem I brooded on for ages, because I wanted to write about environmental matters, the fragility of creatures, and I don't suppose anybody reading it would doubt that it was about that; but I felt it was a much more subtle response to the subject than I would have found easy to make before."

He has spoken in the past of a desire for his writing to be like clear water - not, as one might first suppose, to provide simple refreshment, but rather to enable us to see more clearly the swamp of our primitive desires clearly enough to recognise and reconnect with our true selves.

"And, of course, in our lives it gets harder to do, partly because we fear what we might find, because it hurts so much more down there. But it also gets more difficult, because our access to it becomes more tenuous, thinner, because we spend our lives talking like this, articulating; and, every time we do it, it lays another little membrane, a distance, another layer over a primitive reality."

Our time is up; so I move to finish the interview, but, with a characteristically furrowed brow, a thoughtful Motion is not quite ready to end.

"And this takes us back to God, I think, and this is where I profoundly disagree with Dawkins and others in his camp, because there is in us a primitive appetite for this stuff. Even if it's not true, even if we know, feel, it's not true, to deny that, in your account of what it is to be a human being, is a very, very serious flaw. And to have it said as uncompassionately as he says it, is not good. It's not true to my experience of what it is to be human."

The Customs House by Andrew Motion is published by Faber & Faber at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.70 - Use code CT264 ); 978-0-571-28810-6.

The Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature takes place from 15 to 17 February at Bloxham School, near Banbury, Oxfordshire. For details, visit

www.bloxhamfaithandliterature.co.uk .

 

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