Published: 1 March, 2012
by PAVAN AMARA
For a former Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion lives a fairly normal Kentish Town existence.
The shelves of his flat are stocked full of books, the living room looks out on a picturesque back garden and the whole scene is nestled in an unassuming side street, with the continuous shuffle of feet on the pavement outside.
Motion’s first volume of poetry, Goodnestone: a sequence, was published when he was a 24-year-old Oxford graduate; a quarter of a century later, in 1999, he was appointed to a 10-year tenure as Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom.
Knighted two years ago, he has won the Whitbread Prize and the Somerset Maugham Award.
He has published 15 works of poetry, four of fiction, award-winning biographies of Philip Larkin and John Keats, and a 2006 memoir recalling his own childhood. This month will see the publication of his sequel to Treasure Island – Silver: A Return to Treasure Island.
But right now there’s something more pressing on Motion’s agenda: “The next thing to take over my life in a big way,” as he describes it.
He is working with the Department for Education to roll out the competition – provisionally called Poetry By Heart – to 500 schools beginning, he hopes, next year.
It will target some of the most challenging readers – the “real refuseniks”.
Motion wants the competition to encourage students to “aim high”.
He says schools aren’t placing enough emphasis on poetry in English lessons because many teachers just aren’t that confident about it themselves.
“Imagination,” he says, “elevates people into escapism, and that leads you to visualise a better life.
“In that sense poetry can be utterly liberating from the bleak landscape of cuts and poverty that many people face at the moment. I want it to draw from students what they didn’t know they had. It will make them read more widely, without realising it.”
Motion will put together an anthology for the competition, and secondary school students will have to choose two poems to remember and recite.
Rounds of semi-finals will peak in a “jamboree” event, with a cash prize for the winner and books for their school.
In years to come, Motion wants the competition to become “part of the education” of thousands of schools nationwide.
“I want it to become a date on the national calendar, and it certainly can be,” he says.
“We need a new UK. I said to Ed Miliband the other day [that] if you want people to believe in you, to believe in your government, to win an election, we need a new style of government.
“What else do we value apart from wealth and materialism? What would it be like to live under a government that cares about people? A government that puts its fire power towards lives gone wrong? One that trusts the arts as much as pound signs?
“I find it frustrating to see the cultural damage being done as our libraries are closed. They are our vital organs. It gives us good reason to [ask the] question: Is this how we really want to live?”
Motion recalls London’s worst night of rioting last year, when the Waterstones in Clapham Junction was the only shop in its area that wasn’t ransacked.
“I felt it was a horrible manifestation of lack of educational opportunity,” he says. “They didn’t care about books. Books were so unimportant. They were left untouched while everything else was taken.”
Yet, the written word is what can connect us to others, says Motion.
“I don’t read poems to discover anything new. Poetry is about saying ‘This is what it’s like for one person’, and on some level it reminds others of themselves. That recognition is more powerful than anything else. It signals that the world understands you, and that could be a comfort to those who feel isolated and would otherwise express it negatively.”
Motion recalls his mother’s death in the mid-1980s after nine years in and out of a coma, following a horse riding accident. He was in his early twenties and she became a muse for his poetry.
“When your mother passes away, the world can seem like a very lonely place,” he says. “At the beginning they offered her occupational therapy, and it was a huge relief in such pressing circumstances. I’m amazed the NHS doesn’t use writing in a therapeutic way more often, for example with cancer patients. When you feel so ill, to pick up a pen and investigate your feelings means so much.
“What I am surprised about is why there’s no scheme for poetry in waiting rooms. That would be a great idea and cost very little money – all you need is pen and paper to write. It’s something maybe the Whittington or the Royal Free could explore. People have so much pent-up emotion to release in waiting rooms.
“I don’t think poetry is the answer to all our problems, it’s not a universal panacea. But what I do know is that it supports a better quality of life, and that is something I support. That sort of world is better for everybody. Some may think that is sort of airy-fairy. But how can anything that is good for all of us, be labelled as simply as that?”
• Andrew Motion’s Silver: Return to Treasure Island is published this month by Jonathan Cape, £12.99