Public Property

by Andrew Motion
ISBN: 0571215343

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A Review of: Public Property
by Kevin Higgins

Andrew Motion is a poet for whom the label "conservative" is quite apt. Since 1999 he has been Poet Laureate, and when a poet takes a job which involves writing poems for the royal family, any issues he may have had with the establishment have clearly long-since been resolved. Motion is something of a hate figure for many on the British poetry's experimental wing. He was Larkin's friend and biographer; his editorship of Poetry Review in the 1980s is cited by Duncan as the high-water mark of conservative dominance; and Ian Sinclair surely had Motion in mind when he referred in his introduction to Conductors Of Chaos to "the careers built on rummaging through Philip Larkin's bottom drawer." But what of Motion's poems?
His most recent collection, Public Property, is uneven to say the least. In places it seems as if his preferred reader is the sort of earnest literary tourist, who wanders into a poetry reading once a year. Motion also offers us the nostalgia of Armitage's "The English", except in a more decayed and pompous form. Then there are the Laureate poems, which include two long efforts about the late Queen Mother: one for the occasion of her one hundredth birthday, the other on the occasion of her death. Surprisingly enough, they aren't so bad. And another of Motion's Laureate poems, "What Is Given", commissioned by the Salvation Army, is actually quite good. It tells the story of the fall down through society of William Legge who "once upon a time / was forty three, a barrister, and lived / in comfort with the wife and child he loved / and didn't care if this might make things tame", but who now wears a "poacher's coat / with long, stuffed pockets, hay-bale belt, / and gust of moonlight cold. He's standing there / inside the mantle of the hostel light."
Motion's desire, as a poet, to please a wide public is strong, and the Laureate's job is one which offers him many opportunities. Of course the job also has its dangers. The most insidious of which is the possibility that public pressure might, in time, turn his work into a kind of a middlebrow mush. Motion's next collection will perhaps be a better indication as to whether the laureateship will allow him the luxury of continuing to take the art of poetry seriously.

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