A motion in the bowels: the press and the Poet Laureate


One thing Tony Blair learnt from intellectual Marxists before disowning them was the extent to which culture shapes the circumstances of government and offers new tools of political influence. Hence Cool Britannia.

In the light of this, the voluminous press coverage of Andrew Motion's appointment as Poet Laureate demands urgent attention from PhD students in cultural studies. Since the editor of the NS will not allow me the necessary 100,000 words, what follows is the briefest outline of a textual reading of the final stages of this contest. Footnotes and further explication using longer words will be available shortly (within four or five years) on my personal website, but the title of the accompanying book is already copyright: A Motion in the Bowels: poetry and reflexivity within the idea of Britishness in the post-devolution period.

I begin by explaining the referred meanings of the structure of press coverage: how the Times scooped its rivals with a news story and a leading article whose most potent sentence was placed in the centre of page one in 18-point type. It read: "His is a very British body of work, bound by sea and salt flats, personal loss and the national past." On page four, Erica Wagner praised a "writer of depth and accessibility" and explained Motion's desire to write poems "about national issues".

The only newspaper to follow the Times's story that night for its later editions was the Guardian, which quoted a fellow poet's judgement that the Motion appointment was "a bag of shite" and "the first nail in new Labour's coffin". Already we have clearly established the three core themes of my thesis: nationality, defecation and the cultural politics of the Blair government.

Day two of the coverage takes me towards a binding meta-theme: the pervasive role of spin-doctors in the third year of the Blair administration. I will demonstrate how by mid-1999 the techniques pioneered a decade earlier by the Anglo-Scots vernacular poet Alastair Campbell were almost universal. Citations here include the accusation in the Daily Telegraph that the Motion "leak" to the Times (note the scatological connotations) represented a brutal act of retaliation for the Telegraph's publication of a letter by the widow of the late Ted Hughes denouncing new Labour's quest for a "people's poet". I shall devote an entire chapter to a coruscating sentence from Robert Hardman, the Telegraph's court and social writer: "In leaking the choice of the new Poet Laureate, Tony Blair's spin-controllers have set a fresh standard in contempt for the Crown." In Hardman's view, the announcement should have been placed in the London Gazette, not slurped down the throat of some gormless taster in the Campbell soup factory.

Meanwhile, the Poet Laureate elect was (need I point out the significance to the readers of a republican journal?) in Australia, where it rapidly became clear that he had with him a tin of Campbell's alpha-betti spaghetti, from which he had composed memorable "sound-bites", such as "poetry is a hotline to the emotions". His training is further revealed by his skilled use of the technique of triangulation, which involves telling each reporter what he thinks that newspaper's readership would like to hear him say.

Thus he informs the highly intellectual editor of the Times that if he has to versify on the forthcoming marriage of a PR woman to the monarch's youngest son, he will come up with "something appropriate" but that "refraction may be the key to writing about it". But of the same Sophie and Edward challenge, Motion whispers to the Daily Mail: "I'd like to do it for them. I'll try to write them a beautiful love story."

I fear severe constraint of space as I note Magnus Linklater's schismatic suggestion in the Times that when his paper talks about Britishness it probably means Englishness. Within hours the broadsheet press is demanding Poet Laureates of Scotland, Wales and those English counties where cultural studies has made its deepest impact.

Over the ensuing weekend there is no let-up. Here I spy opportunities to explore the use of subtexts in the mass media (rival readings of a Motion interview in the little-known journal The Devil spark controversy over the poet's "republican leanings"), and there is rich matter on the subject of cronyism, as Motion's former wedding guests, carefully installed by the would-be Poet Laureate in positions of literary influence throughout the previous decade, denounce the vituperation of jealous poets. One such rebuttal (not to be confused with a butt of sack, which is not, as the Guardian said, a "sack of wine") came from Blake Morrison in the Independent on Sunday, where, in the best traditions of that newspaper, it was balanced by a caustic simul-buttal from A N Wilson, who revealed that the poet James Fenton, on a trip down the Amazon, described the act of urinating over the side of a boat as "passing an Andrew".

My final section, however, will be built largely around the Observer's coverage of the event. Having noted another perfectly formed example of cronyism from Robert McCrum, I will discuss Harriet Lane's essay in which she compares Motion with Paul Muldoon, the new Oxford professor of poetry.

Lane's choice of a Motion poem to illustrate her case offers what semioticians and cultural theorists of the work of Madonna will recognise instantly as a clinch. The chosen poem concludes:

"On the one hand, it's only shit; on the other shit's shit,

and what we desire in the world is less, not more of it."

The writer is professor of journalism at Cardiff University

This article first appeared in the 31 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Between two mental universes