This is the first poetry collection by the former British poet laureate to be published in the U.S. However, I first heard him read some years ago at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. His low-key manner and wry sense of humor did not prepare me for the emotional impact of the poems he read that evening, some of which are included in this collection. Reading them now, I am moved all over again.
In his poetry, Motion beautifully achieves the balance to which I, as a poet, aspire: to write poems in clear and comprehensible language that pack an emotional wallop. I enjoy puzzling out a difficult poem as much as the next person, and meet with a like-minded group of people once a month to do just that: we read and discuss the work of a different poet each month.
But there is something magical to me in the delicate craftsmanship required to phrase a line that could almost be speech but is so much more. I love to read a poem that suddenly transcends itself, the leaping poetry that Robert Bly describes in his book of the same name. Such poems have within them a gap, a leap, that requires the reader to engage and leap as well, encountering that which is mysterious and unspoken.
Motion achieves such an effect with surprising imagery or clever word choice or a line that changes your understanding of the whole poem. It could be something that increases the gravity of some everyday event, such as cutting the grass, or something that undercuts it, such as a comparison to “a wind-hammered plastic bag.” It could be an unexpected image, such as a fox climbing the garden wall appearing to have slipped out of his skeleton.
An example of a poem where he manages all three—imagery, word choice and the leap—is “Mythology”. Here is the second and last verse:
And you? Your life was not your own to keep
or lose. Beside the river, swerving underground
the future tracked you, snapping at your heels:
Diana, breathless, hunted by your own quick hounds.
Some of his most remarkable poems achieve their power through total immersion in the experience, such as in “Serenade”, a poem about his mother's horse that moved me to tears in that long-ago Toronto evening and again when I read it now. The first three-quarters of this long poem describe a blacksmith’s visit to reshoe the horse. The detail—of the blacksmith's apron, the waiting collie, of the horse “gone loose in her skin”—draws the reader irresistibly into the moment, into that world, until the final matter-of-fact lines tumble us out into heartbreak.
I have several of Motion's poetry books, some picked up in Canada, some in England, and his stunning biography of Keats. Even though there are some duplicates in this volume, I purchased it for the new poems, as well as for the chance to examine his choices.
I've found in assembling my own poetry collections, and helping others assemble theirs, that a poem sometimes takes on new and unexpected meaning when set alongside another poem. I was curious, not only as to which poems he'd selected, but also in how he ordered them.
For example, in Public Property, “Serenade” is the last part of a four-part poem, each a memory of childhood: “fragments of the world / in place, yet muddled, and me floating too.” Here, not only does it stand alone, but it is bookended by poems about losses that are not just ameliorated but transformed by a companion, presumably his spouse.
The title poem, while about his father, also reflects his link to the pastoral poetry of Andrew Marvell, according to the introduction by Langdon Hammer. I enjoy the balance of past and present in these poems, and enjoyed hearing Motion read them again recently at Johns Hopkins University.
What poet have you read recently whose work you particularly liked?