Once upon a time I thought the end of my ten years as Poet Laureate would be a slow glide back down to earth – my attention fixed on a long summer of uninterrupted writing. Things haven’t turned out like that, and I have only myself to blame. A decade ago I decided to try and create a “doing” side to the job of Laureate (visiting schools, nagging the government about the National Curriculum, setting up the online poetry archive), and this shows no sign of diminishing. Quite the opposite, in fact. I don’t want to get in the way of whoever comes after me, but neither do I want to stop the work I’ve started.
The week just ended was typical of the decade just ending. Early on Monday (I get up early to have writing time that’s uncompromised by emails and telephones) I started a poem that’s been sheltering at the back of my head for several weeks now – a memory of being in an ancient jalopy that caught fire when I was behind the wheel, and burned to a husk within minutes. I got about half of it into shape before the present started to distract me. Which was around ten – when I hopped on the 29 bus (I live in Camden, north London) and went down to my teaching room.
For the past six years I’ve run the creative writing MA programme at Royal Holloway College, and although the college’s mothership is out at Egham, they have a building in Bedford Square. My room used to be in the basement, down among the id-men, but recently I’ve been given one on the top floor and therefore become an ego-ist. The attic feel of the space, the squint-views down through the greening leaves of the square, the bubble and squeak of others working below me . . . I love it there, and use the room more and more as a study-away-from-home.
My fiction class meets for three hours every Monday afternoon in term – a gang of clever, talkative, talented people who leave me feeling at once emptied and replenished. And in the later evening, a treat: friends have invited me to I Capuleti e I Montecchi at the Royal Opera House. I’ve seen a few operas by Bellini over the years, but not this one, and I immediately remember why I like him so much. The lush melodies, the yearning, the heartache – of course that’s all ravishing. But there’s a complexity of feeling, too, and a marrying of musical nuances with shades of human feeling, which make us feel the stubbornness of the star-crossed lovers as well as their muddle and pathos.
The music feels like a big gulp of air before the next three days. On Tuesday I’m at a seminar in Birmingham, at another in London on Wednesday, and at a third in Newcastle on Thursday, each of them organised by the examination board OCR to “inspire and inform” English teachers. The programme consists of OCR administrators explaining the new GCSE requirements, performance poetry laid on by Apples and Snakes, and me recalling the English teacher who first drew me to poems, before reading a few of my own things. It’s hard for anyone to measure their effect on an audience, but the effect of the audience on me is palpable: it feels like a call to arms, seeing so much enthusiasm for writing having to contend with so much in the curriculum that threatens to squeeze the essence of poetry out of poetry, and make do instead with a small catalogue of technical and linguistic observations.
Or rather it feels like another call to arms. This is one of the battles I’ve been trying to fight for ten years now – to make poetry more accessible to children as an expression of the fundamental human relish for words, their play, and their connection with strong feeling – and there’s a lot more to do before anything like a victory can be declared. Before I leave Newcastle, though, and now wearing my hat as chair of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, as well as my Laureate cloak, I give a talk on literary manuscripts at Seven Stories, the marvellous national Centre for Children’s Books. Housed in a converted warehouse, the centre tells the story of British children’s books from the 1930s to the present day, stores and displays a rapidly growing collection of manuscripts, puts on displays, and makes manifest the basic pleasures of reading in ways that are in all respects delightful.
Come Friday I wear another hat, as a council member of the Advertising Standards Authority, and meet with my colleagues in Holborn for our monthly session. Much of the weekly work required of council members is done online, and always creates a fascinating tussle with words (and images) and their meaning. So do these more formal gatherings – with the extra pleasure of debate. I leave as I always leave: thinking I know a little more about the world.
And suddenly it’s the weekend. Now, where did I put that poem about the burning car . . . ?
Andrew Motion has been Poet Laureate since 1999. He steps down in May