An Interview with Andrew Motion by Mark Wormald
Andrew Motion was born in London in 1952. He was educated at University College, Oxford, where he won the Newdigate Prize and wrote a critical study of the poetry of Edward Thomas. Since then he has been a Lecturer at Hull, edited Poetry Review, and been Editorial Director at Chatto and Windus, where he now works as Poetry Editor. He has published five books of poetry; The Pleasure Steamers (1978), Independence (1981), Secret Narratives (1983), Dangerous Play, which won the John Llewelyn Rhys Memorial Prize for 1984, and Natural Causes (l987), which won the Dylan Thomas Prize. The Lamberts appeared in 1986 and won the Somerset Maugham Award. He is Philip Larkin's official biographer. Married with three children, he lives and writes in London.
For some years now you have been a critic, an editor and a biographer as well as a poet. I was wondering whether you found it necessary to pigeonhole your life into its different components.
What I'd like to feel - though in practice it doesn't always happen like this - is that I've advanced through life writing on all fronts. There are some things which suggest themselves as fit material for biographical enquiry - writers I particularly like, for instance. Some themes occur to me as subjects for poems, and these really choose themselves. Reviews tend to have a slightly more circumstantial life. They have to do with money, what's being published when, and what refers to your interests. And, as you perhaps don't know, I'm also writing these novels at the moment. What I find myself doing is munching my way through life trying to bring into play whatever kind of writing seems most appropriate to the experience confronting me and the feeling occurring to me. I don't really feel that I am either a biographer or a poet, inflexibly; I'd much rather have Writer written on my gravestone than Poet or Biographer.
Does Writer include Editor?
Working as an editor is a slightly different kind of experience. As a writer I find myself trying to develop the relationship that exists between the side of my mind which is well-read, reasonably intelligent, certainly well-educated, alert, manipulative - all of those things - and between the side of my mind which is like the primeval swamp, and really doesn't know what the hell is going on. There's a kind of psychological description of this which is to do with your id and your ego. It's out of the relationship between those two sides of my mind that my best work as a poet - whatever the best is - arises.
My work as an editor, though, is much more to do with the purely well-read, educated, intelligent, etc, part of my mind. It's a much more conscious activity. As an editor 1 need to speak and reply intelligently to the material that comes in. I edit our poets quite heavily, if they'll let me - if they don't then well and good - and I certainly edit my novelists quite heavily. I feel a sort of cousin to myself as a writer, when I am being an editor, rather than the same person; and indeed this is rather important to me in other ways too. When I was at Chatto full time, as Editorial Director, and spending a great deal of that time dealing with other people's manuscripts, there were many days when I thought I'd really much rather be doing my own writing. This cousinly relationship between myself as writer and editor was being sabotaged. The cousin who was a writer came to stay and got bad-tempered, and I think that meant that I couldn't do one job (writing), and perhaps wasn't doing the other (editing) as well as I should have been.
With this sort of tension in mind, it's tempting to see your own poetry as an extension of the conflicts between your various roles. From as early as 'Inland', your Newdigate poem, you have consistently referred to 'all the lives I've led'. Is the pluralism professional, or do its sources go deeper? Does an element of the tentative contribute to the kind of poems you write? Or does the discipline of poetic form help to resolve the dissonance between all those lives?
Well, my point about the difference between editor and a writer notwithstanding: I think that what you nicely call my 'various roles' are all facets of the same coin. My life doesn't feel fragmented in the least, but I do feel that one of the things that I would try and write about - it's something I've explored in the past, and that I'd like to come back to - is the difference between the life that I appear to be leading on a day to day basis, and the life that I live in my head. It's something that fascinates me as a subject for poems, and also, I should say, as a subject for biography; it's largely what the life of Philip Larkin will be about, when I write it. We can perhaps talk about that later.
If you're interested in writing about things being tentative, and things being various - that's MacNeice's phrase, 'the drunkenness of things being various' - then being tentative and various yourself isn't necessarily the best way of writing about them. One of the reasons why I like the poets I do like as much as I do - I'm thinking of Edward Thomas and Philip Larkin - is that they are both masterful in their use of long, and as I see it subtle, sentences. Until my dying day I will want to write with one eye on the potential for ambiguity and paradox and confusion, and I will want to use techniques that are appropriate to the revelation of those things. That is, long sentences, making a real point about where you end your lines - all that kind of stuff; let alone the kind of language you use and the focus that it has. But when I look back over my poems now, particularly the poems in Dangerous Play, I find myself wishing that I could keep faith with those things, while writing with a slightly sharper focus than I have done. Where I don't like my poems is almost always where I think their focus is too blurred for their own good, though I see what I was trying to do, as often as not, which was to be mysterious. I think that the focus has sharpened as I've spent more time writing prose. Why that should be I'm not quite sure ...
Has it, do you think, anything to do with your attitude to your mother's illness and death? That was the subject of many of your early poems; how do you regard the territory now?
Latterly, and especially since my wife and I had our children, I've come to realise more clearly that my mother's illness and death were both what made me start writing in the first place, and also - if one can speak in quite these terms -that it made me get off to a flying start. Because, at school and then University, when everybody else with a lyric impulse was floundering, wishing they had something to write about, I had something which, yes, I wished I didn't have to write about, but which was certainly there. Unavoidably there. And it made me grow up as a writer more quickly than I would otherwise have done. And then it became a real albatross, because - I'm speaking as if I haven't got personal feelings - because I felt I wrote best when I was writing about her, and yet I wanted to write about other things. How could I write as emotionally about other things as people told me I had written about her? I think it was re:1lly as an attempt to get away from writing about her that I found myself cultivating an interest in narrative poems: other times, other persons, other books - 'all the lives you've led'. I thought that narrative poems would somehow allow mc to stay in buried touch with my feelings about my mother, because the subjects that attracted me obviously connected with the set of feelings that she bequeathed to me - while not necessarily containing any direct reference to her.
And so for several years I shied away from writing the lyric poem, as I understand the term. (What I really mean by that being life hacking you on the ankle and you giving a yelp of pain, which is the poem.) It was only when I was putting together Dangerous Play - and reading that book was a kind of revisiting my past - that I discovered the poems I liked best in it weren't the narrative ones but were the ones which were first person. By that stage I was toying with the idea of writing fiction, and I was writing more prose anyway, beginning The Lamberts, and so on. I now find that the poems that I've written in and since Natural Causes are much more straightforwardly lyric; and much more formal too.
In your introduction to The Lamberts, you wrote that the lives of these three men were lives underpinned by women, who weren't themselves allowed to provide much evidence of their own existence. That seems to connect with a habit of your own. in your own poems: namely that of taking your ability to see things from another person's perspective so far that you end by almost entirely effacing your own presence from your work. Nowhere is this tendency more marked, though equally nowhere more understandable, than at the end of your poem about Larkin, 'This is your subject speaking', which forms the epilogue of Natural Causes. You describe how you 'vanished/ down an avenue' that led from the Nursing Home; you, and not the man who was dying, are the one to disappear.
Well I wrote that last bit rather wondering what I was saying, watching it come out of the end of my pen. I registered at the time that I was after some kind of Tennysonian sign-off, and indeed, 'On the bald street breaks the blank day' is somewhere in the background, quite deliberately so. What 1 didn't want to seem to be saying was, "Well, here am I somehow inheriting your mantle" - because that would be so ludicrously self-aggrandising as to deserve a thunder-bolt. I did, though, want to say, "I love this man, and I love his poems, but I am my own man, and this is me vanishing out of that relationship." Not that I've turned my back on it, far from it, what with the biography and all- but the obvious contradiction of the self-effacing emphasis is the poem itself.
You are 'your subject speaking' into the tape recorder, now. You've outlived Larkin; but as his biographer, you're also fulfilling an aspect of that line of yours in The Lamberts. You are, in a sense, underpinning him in something approaching the way that the Lambert women supported the Lambert men underpinning both as poet and as biographer. As you've already suggested, psychological relationships and structures are important to your own writing; I was wondering what your response might be to Michael Holroyd's recent defence of psychoanalytical methods in biography, and whether you intend to employ those methods with Larkin.
I think that there is something about Larkin's life that was touched upon very closely by what Michael was saying. I should say first of all that biography is a much lowlier form than what Michael does; I don't think it's grovellingly parasitical as a form, but I don't esteem it as much as Michael. That said, if I were writing Hemingway's life I would be allowed to feel that there was an intimate relationship between the works and the events in his life, the events that are good to read about: the sharks, the women, the drink. These really are very revealing about the works. But if you're writing the life of somebody like Philip (and I can't think of many people who are like Philip in this respect Emily Dickinson, perhaps) you don't have glamorous event to write about, so it's not going to be a good read, in that sense. There are no sharks, though there's quite a lot of drink, and a few women; and both the drink and the women are important. But even they are neither so numerous nor so exotic as to make you feel that you can somehow turn Philip into Hemingway. What we have in Larkin's case is the question of whether the events in a writer's life and what they actually produced are as intimately linked as most biography automatically encourages us to think. His life encourages us to dispense with that idea, because there's very little event to write about; and what we're left with instead is a writer's life of a very pure sort. A life in which commitment to the world of work - and he took it very seriously, being librarian - is over by five thirty, and you can't carry it home with you. You come home and have a drink, and maybe have supper, and then write for two hours. That's what his life was geared to, and over the course of his life he did a hell of a lot of it. I mean he may not have published a lot, or finished a lot, or let a lot past his censor - and indeed for the last ten years of his life he didn't write at all ...
Will I be using psychological methods? Well, if you mean, will I be trying to winkle myself inside his mind and see what was producing his poems, then the answer's yes. What I'll have to do is try and conjure up some kind of mental state, some psychological condition, which allows us to understand how this kind of work might have been produced. And I think I'm beginning to understand it: I'm certainly beginning to think about it in ways I wouldn't have six months ago. But I don't want to talk about it until the book comes out.
Is that because this sort of cerebral investigation of the unspoken, the unconscious, threatens your own work in some way?
Certainly, what mustn't happen is that I start to apply the same processes to myself. Talking like this to you is in fact a highly dangerous activity, and not to be undertaken lightly. If you're like me, and feel that the relationship between the side of your mind that's articulate, and the side that's the swamp, has to be kept in a very careful balance, than an interview runs the risk of overdeveloping the articulate side so that the swamp gets over-run, buried.
You can't cultivate a swamp.
No, but you can make sure it doesn't get built on, or drained. It doesn't pay to explore it too much; my great temptation is to over-explain, analyse, teach, talk, do all the things that I've spent my life in offices doing. Of course, that's partly because I Iike being in the world of work: it's a self-fulfilling, and self-extending temptation. And partly because, coming from my background, which was very unbookish, I have found it very difficult to give myself permission to be a writer, until quite recently.
And it's a combination of that temptation and that reluctance, presumably, which accounts for your phase 'intelligent, petrified', in the poem 'Natural Causes'. Is that a feeling you're still aware of?
Gradually, gradually, I've come to realise that what I wanted to do was spend my life sitting here, sitting at my desk, and now at last I've done it. And for the last year, since I took the decision to reduce the amount of time I was spending at Chatto, I've been happier than I've ever been in my life before, doing what I want to do. I still have my one day a week at the office, so I haven't yet bid the world farewell for ever; and after all I can hear the world, in the form of my children, upstairs. But it has been a very interesting process, to me, this giving myself permission; and as I've felt it coming through, so I have felt more confident at putting my interest in all things mysterious more pristinely. This novel is full of people saying to the hero, "Stop bloody well apologising for yourself!" and I'm pleased: this is obviously me telling myself.
In an odd way, and I absolutely don't mean this at all disrespectfully to him, the business of getting permission was also bound up with Larkin dying. It wasn't just a coincidence that I took these decisions at the same time that he vanished from this vale of tears. Because he was the living writer that I admired more than any other, and we had spent of a lot of time together, and because it's hard to imagine a better lyric poet than he was, I think I felt rather edged by him - by nothing that he said or did, but just by the fact of him being there - into a feeling that I had to go and do something significantly different, in order not to fall into his shadow. Hence the narrative poems, which rather to my relief he didn't like. He'd say, "I mean, if you're going to write like that why don't you go the whole hog and write like Somerset Maugham?"
You have, at any rate, put some distance between his views, as expressed in his writing, and your own. His notion of children as 'dilution' rather than 'increase', for instance, is something which I imagine you'd want to refute.
Well, this is an interesting point. The Larkin dilution business - that children mean dilution - is really a version of what Connolly says in The Enemies of Promise. There he cites, among the enemies, the pram in the hall. Now, what Connolly means, I think, is not that he wasn't going to have time to write his books because he was going to be so busy changing nappies: because as we know, in that day and age, and being the person he was, he simply wouldn't have changed a nappy. They would either have had a servant, or his wife would have done it. What he does mean is the enemy of promise that children represent to him is some kind of huge, intellectual disturbance that he can't deal with. There are plenty of people of that generation who have felt that; and an American writer I deeply admire, Raymond Carver, in his wonderful book Fires has an essay about how children pretty well made it impossible for him to write anything other than short stories, because children just 'eat' you. I must say I know what he means - and he didn't have twins (unlike me)!
What having children has meant for me is a huge reinforcement of the idea of mortality, and this has made me get on with living - as I think I probably wouldn't otherwise have done. So far from being an enemy of promise, the pram in the hall if anything is likely to make me try and fulfil my promise, whatever it might be.
A final question. In 'This is your subject speaking', you describe how 'your writing ran/in lines across/the dark reflection of your face'. Are you aware of your own dark reflection behind your poetry? I ask this because the idea of writing being an adjunct of personality is something that wouldn't appeal to the new critics.
Just about everything I've said wouldn't agree with the new critics. As far as I'm concerned my writing comes directly out of my strongest and most personal feelings. I see what the new critics mean, in wanting to create a distance between a writer's personality and work; and I feel what they mean, whenever I give readings. That's one of the reasons I don't give that many of them, because your writing's slammed up against your personality. There you are - six foot one, fair hair, slightly stooped - reading these poems, which are apparently about this person - six foot one, fair hair, slightly stooped. And they are and they aren't - I know that. But I still intend my poems to function as photographs taken from one person's life, which are put on show to everybody else so that they might perhaps recognise things about their own lives from those photographs. I think that that process is more likely to succeed if you colour the photographs with those feelings which you have to say are yours, and personal. I'm sure this sounds very unsympathetic to the new critics, but that's how I am.