Wild Court

An international poetry journal based in the English Department of King’s College London

Wisdom joined with simplicity: on Andrew Motion’s New & Selected

Patrick Davidson Roberts

It’s been twenty-five years since Andrew Motion’s first Selected Poems was published by Faber & Faber and for him personally, and for the world, a lot has occurred in the meantime. For him, there has been ten years as Poet Laureate, personal upheavals, professional successes, and a relocation to Baltimore. For all of us, there has been history. And then there’s poetry, that shaded area in the Venn diagram that necessarily contains both personal and universal influences.

Motion’s New and Selected Poems 1977-2022 (Faber, 2023) serves well as that shaded area. It does not come alone, released as it is alongside Sleeping on Islands: A Life in Poetry (Faber, 2023), a prose memoir that roughly picks up where the earlier In the Blood (Faber, 2006) left off, and tells Motion’s story from uncertain schoolboy, through Oxford, work, love, loss, laureateship and, foremost, poetry: its practice and practitioners. The new memoir is a remarkable and very honest book that this reader cannot recommend highly enough, but it is frequently a sad story that often seems to say that the only thing truly accrued through a life is uncertainty. I picked up the NSP wondering if it was to be a sibling-text of similar conclusion.

When considering Ted Hughes’ New Selected Poems 1957-1994 (Faber, 1994), Simon Armitage wrote of such mid/late career selections by poets as risking “a kind of self-revisionism that borders on the insane”, and the reader may worry that a poet will elbow out the reputational bedrock of their career for some recent new direction. They need not worry here. Motion divides his book in half: the first covers 1977-2015, the second 2015-present. The contents page is the campaign map of a long, successful advance, and a new expedition well underway.

The NSP opens with ‘Anne Frank Huis’, a delicate early brilliance. The visit to the secret annex is perfectly balanced between the awkwardness inherent in all memorials –

whoever comes
[…] can never help

but break her secrecy again. Just listening
is a kind of guilt

– through the recognition that –

What hope
she had for ordinary love and interest
survives her here, displayed above the bed
as pictures of her family; some actors

(The double meaning in that ‘some actors’ is masterful.) The poem arrives clear-eyed at a simple conclusion, but one no less important for that:

And those who stoop to find them find
not only patience missing its reward,
but one enduring wish for chances

like my own: to leave as simply
as I do

Henry Howard wrote after Martial of “Wisdom, joined with simplicity”, and they are Motion staples, but simplicity in his conclusions does not infer simplicity in his journey to them. In ‘The Korean Memorial at Hiroshima’, ‘Anne Frank Huis’ finds a near-twin poem, but unlike the older encounter the calm is gone, with not only the poet and his partner crying:

Everyone else was crying too.
We shuffled around in a queue,
crying and saying nothing.

In his Acknowledgements, Motion states that he has made changes to many of the poems between their first appearances and here, which put this reader in mind of his association with Ian Hamilton, he of the piercing short lyric (and continually-revised poems), and the question of whether alteration is unavoidable in a later assemblance of a poet’s work by the poet themselves, or whether Auden put everyone off that. Hamilton’s revisiting a poem usually led to cuts – short poems shrinking further, even if growing in resonance – but with Motion his distillation is towards an asceticism of reflection that is far more considered than cuts. The arrangement of the poems is a lyric statement in itself, with the stepping-stones of ‘Anne Frank Huis’, ‘A Blow to the Head’, ‘The Sin’ (his one obvious nod to the Hamiltonian included here) and ‘Laying the Fire’ taking us through the early stages of the book before the brilliant ‘The Cinder Path’:

I know what it means
to take the cinder path.

You might say death
but I prefer taking

pains with the world.

The title poem of his second collection published as Laureate (The Cinder Path, Faber, 2009), this leads us to the question of the Occasional or Commissioned Poem. It is possible that Motion’s lasting effect as Laureate will be threefold; the reduction of the tenure from life to a decade, the Poetry Archive’s online database of poets reading their own work, and a serious engagement with schools and young people. These are all achievements, yes, but this reader has long felt that Motion’s Laureate poetry (both written for and during the job) was the best produced since Tennyson. In the latter part of the first half of the NSP, Motion offers a strong if also shy representation of this period, focusing heavily on his engagement with the last surviving veterans of the First World War. To follow Hughes as Laureate was one thing, to follow and equal if not outdo him as a chronicler of what the older poet termed ‘The National Ghost’ is a remarkable feat, best illustrated at the conclusion of ‘The Death of Harry Patch’:

When he has taken his place, and the whole company
are settled at last, their padre appears out of nowhere,
pausing a moment in front of each and every one
to slip a wafer of dry mud onto their tongues.

There are two Occasional poems of Motion’s that it is sad to see absent here: ‘Causa Belli’ (2003), a four-line poem written on the invasion of Iraq that tersely and bleakly foretold everything that would happen by explaining why and what had happened, and ‘Simple’ (2004), a perfect telling of John 21, that advances a wonderful summation of faith (‘they had expected nothing / now there was too much’). The volume does not suffer for their absence, but readers should seek them out online.

The second half of the NSP is populated with a poetry of excitement and discovery, and here the book most diverges from the sometimes-somber conclusions of its memoir-twin. Since 2015 Motion has been excitingly diverse in both his formality and subject matter, with no wholesale jettisoning of the short-lined, four-line-stanza that this reader probably most associates with him, but rather an extension of these into both the longer-lined stanzas executed in the Harry Patch poems and now found in poems such as ‘Waders’:

I close my eyes and scrutinize the white
that also lies inside me while the ash
rattles its pale green keys above my head

Further, since 2018’s Essex Clay, and into 2020’s Randomly Moving Particles (both Faber), Motion has developed not so much a freer form – the lyric remains rapt, tight – but an approach to the navigation of the page as white space that brought me to mind of the recent work of Frederick Seidel and David Harsent, particularly in the latter collection:

Here is the old question of leave or remain,
which way madness lies, which way I lose
what exactly I cannot decide, years for a starter,
also skin flakes, hair certainly, accumulated wisdom,
everything gathered by my own efforts, everything […]

Harsent and Motion, though very different poets, have long mirrored each other, with the first poet constructing a narrative poetry from a lyric vocabulary, and the second building lyric verse from a more usually narrative word-hoard: the exact, the directional, the nominal, the almost-tough things of experience. The artist brought to mind by this most recent body of Motion’s work is J. M. W. Turner, with his late seascapes, answerable to no one but the piercing truth of his own talent and skill, and quite unlike (in any way) his peers in the exactness of his voice.

The book ends with a stunning sequence, ‘Hardly a Day’, both a reflection on and response to Dryden’s translation of the Aeneid, that home-questing poem, which Motion ends almost too well for a final poem in a book:

My country gods I left behind
my soft approaches also
and my dreams that fly the day.

What hope remains my death
must give and that is not
to exaggerate in the slightest.

Meanwhile I fatten myself up
on forms without their bodies
and if feathers and dust so be it.

That middle stanza is as close to an encapsulation of an astonishing poet and a rich life’s work thus far as we might hope for from Motion. Where in prose-memoir the reader may find him sad or rueful in reflection, in poetry (of course) the poet is enlivened, renewing, going further. It might seem greedy to want still more from him after so much, but it must be hoped more readers will discover or revisit Motion’s poetry with this volume, and look forward to what new worlds he might yet bring us.

The latest selection of poems by Patrick Davidson Roberts is The Trick (Broken Sleep Books, 2023)