A turnip writes

Public Property

Andrew Motion <em>Faber and Faber, 102pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0571215343

Being poet laureate is one of those jobs - like England football coach or director general of the BBC - that are impossible to do right. In so exposed a position, the incumbent can expect relentless scrutiny from a press willing to jump on any perceived gaffe or sign of ineptitude. Now, three years into his tenure, it is perhaps time to ask whether Andrew Motion is shaping up as a Sven-Goran Eriksson or a Graham Taylor - Swede or turnip.

The poet laureateship brings with it even worse treacheries: the very act of putting one's creative impulse in the service of royalty is at one level scarcely different from, say, Fay Weldon cooking up prose at the behest of Bulgari or the Savoy. A tart is still a tart, after all, whether she comes in Spandex or diamonds or ermine. There is also the matter of writing to order: is the Muse really to be bought so cheaply? Motion's own thoughts on his position are enlightening. The Queen Mother's death cannot have taken him by surprise, yet, he says, he resisted the urge to have his pandect on the national grief written and ready to roll the moment Peter Sissons chose his mauve tie. "If I were a journalist, I would [have done] exactly that, but a poet must not do that, particularly a poet who insists on writing out of feeling," he told the Observer.

The appeal to feeling is unfashionable, but Motion is right to make it: too many poets are wary of direct emotional engagement, fearful of being dismissed as sentimentalists. As long as the poem is based on strong feeling, he says, the thinking can take care of itself. In the event, Motion's Queen Mumogram, "Remember This", is a good counter-example to his principles. Its list of images, each prefaced with the words "Think of . . .", feels peremptory, as though the poet never got beyond working through his first thoughts to arrive at any depth of feeling, while the insistent Wordsworthian beat flirts with doggerel.

Far better was his effort on the occasion of the last census, "All of Us". Though it was mocked on publication, it is, I think, one of his more accomplished official poems. It starts with the image of "a field full of folk" with their "bright shining faces/bobbing in silver grasses", and ends with the poet walking on the beach with his father, their footprints quickly effaced by the tide. A conventional image, perhaps, but an effective way of putting a pulse into such a dry exercise as people-counting. The whole thing had the feel of a kind of democratised "Ozymandias".

"All of Us", unfortunately, does not make it into this collection, but "Remember This" does. Public Property contains a bare half-dozen of Motion's official poems, yet as the two-edged title implies, the job casts its shadow over all his work. As the new Labour laureate, Motion feels the hand of history on his shoulder: the childhood poems here consciously echo Wordsworth's Prelude; Tennyson is cheekily subverted in "The Dog of the Light Brigade"; and there's a longish prose memoir, "While I Was Fishing", dedicated to his immediate predecessor, Ted Hughes.

The key signature is one of loss and grief. The best poems are the evocations of the poet's mother and of a greener England, and the delicate, dignified elegies for Motion's parents-in-law. These in particular are so much more at ease with themselves as poetry than the official memorials, which seem utterly out of kilter with the age. Public monuments in verse were fine in Tennyson's day, but their time has long since passed. And yet, in his willingness to take on commissions from bodies as diverse as the TUC, Childline and the Salvation Army, Motion has, I think, shown how the laureateship can develop and take its proper place in the life of the nation.

Adam Newey is poetry editor of the NS

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