Andrew Motion: Guided Tour
“My short tour of the Poetry Archive is designed to show its range, as well as the strength-in-depth of its holdings. And also to demonstrate how the pleasures and meanings of poetry depend as much on sound-sense as they do on page-sense. I hope you’ll enjoy my choices, and also use them as departure-points for your own adventures through the collection.”
Andrew Motion was the Poet Laureate of Great Britain 1999-2009. His published collections of poetry include The Pleasure Steamers (1978), Independence (1981), Secret Narratives (1983), Natural Causes (1987), Love in a Life (1991), Salt Water (1997) and Public Property (2002). He has edited journals and poetry collections including Here to Eternity (2001) and has published prose fiction; his biographies include Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life (1993), Keats (1997) and Wainewright the Poisoner (2000).
The first port of call is Canada, and a wonderfully intense yet relaxed reading by Margaret Atwood. Her voice is rich with experience, melancholy but at the same time sprightly - and used to terrific but un-self-conscious effect in 'The Immigrants'. "Always they are too poor", the poem says - striking an eternal note of sadness. We can hear it again in her other poems in the Archive - in the elegy for her father, 'King Lear in Respite Care', and in 'The Moment', which puzzles over the simultaneous closeness and otherness of nature. And the sprightliness? That's most obvious in 'Siren Song' - but it's always checked by a characteristic gravity of thought.
Denise Riley is one of Britain's most interesting modern poets - modern in the sense of experimental, as well as simply 'contemporary'. The subtleties of her reading voice, with its mixture of English and Scottish cadences, helps us to follow the contours of poems which work upon us gradually. This is immediately helpful and rewarding in the comparatively straightforward 'Shantung'. But the same principle applies to a more discursive poem such as 'Dark Looks' or 'Oleanna', where she uses speech rhythms as a kind of steadying device, occasionally slipping in phrases from vernacular talk, or pop songs. These things are pleasures in themselves, but also springboards to a denser and more elaborate kind of enquiry. It means the poems are rich with the sound of sense, as well as sense itself.
In 'War Music', Christopher Logue re-vamps and re-visions Homer; the poem has been one of the great unfolding poetic panoramas of recent years. The deep, gravely rush-and-pause of Logue's voice as he reads 'All Day Permanent Red', his sensitivity to the play between hard and soft sounds, and the nimbleness with which he moves between the voice of something like a sports commentator, to a severe orator, to a lyricist, to a meditator on fighting and its follies, are all extraordinary. The result is a poem which quite properly catches Homer's relish for combat, but which (partly by the interpolation of modern anachronisms such as the names Bubblegum and Thersites' dog Nasty) also exposes the true face of folly and suffering. The whole poem is a tour de force - and so is this deeply sympathetic reading.
'Eden Rock', by Charles Causley is a much-loved poem by one of the best-loved poets of his time, and this reading reminds us why. The Cornish accent, the charming asides and explanations between poems, the steady circling of ballad themes and rhythms (which we can also hear in 'At the British War Cemetery, Bayeux', and 'Timothy Winters') all lure us into feeling there might be something comfortable about the work. In fact it turns out to be full of disturbing memories and a troubling sense of evanescence. This marvellous recording demonstrates what is true and valuable about the Poetry Archive as a whole: it makes us feel intimate with Causley's poems, while at the same time lifting them into a brighter place for our delight and understanding.