Wednesday, March 04, 2009


The question posed by Andrew Motion’s The Mower, out any minute now from David R. Godine, is: Has Britain’s most recent poet laureate always been a dreadful writer, or is this just the case of a talented young man who believed his own press clippings & slouched into a life of unrelenting clichés passed off as profound thoughts? A third conceivable argument is that he intends to be awful, an instance of flarf avant la lettre. How else might one explain the following?

Earth’s axel creaks; the year jolts on; the trees
begin to slip their brittle leaves, their flakes of rust
and darkness takes the edge off daylight, not
because it wants to – never that. Because it must.

Four hackneyed images of time passing followed by a line that could only read aloud by placing the back of one’s hand against one’s brow before yielding the most histrionic pathetic – seriously pathetic – fallacy I can recall. It is hard to imagine reading this to an audience that did not double over in laughter. There is not one phrase here that is not overwritten, not one image that is not stiff with rigor mortis.

The second half of this little ode, entitled “Mythology,” is even more appalling just because it is in such bad taste:

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.

A poem of mourning for the late Princess Diana. Motion does at least reach for polysemy in the final sentence, jumbling together the image of goddess of the hunt with the real-life woman chased by paparazzi through the streets of Paris. But Motion apparently can’t help himself, calling the photogs “the future” & turning the image into one last cliché of the hunt. Just for good measure, Motion’s muddled grammar has the river, rather than Diana or the photographers, swerving underground. The Seine does no such thing, and the mythological Diana is of course a hunter, not prey.

Intellectually this poem would be an embarrassment for a college freshman. Motion wasn’t yet the laureate when Diana died, so this isn’t something he was required to do. In one sense, it may even have been an audition. Ironically, this poem is toward the end of the book’s “Selected” portion, which is to say Motion thinks it’s a keeper.

Was it ever thus? The book’s second poem, “In the Attic,” is every bit as committed to the hoariest clichés & unfathomable overwriting. The speaker in the attic paws through the clothes of the deceased, kneeling:

My hands push down
between hollow, invisible sleeves,
then take hold and lift:

a green holiday, a red christening;
all your unfinished lives
fading through dark summers,
entering my head as dust.

It is not the sleeves that are invisible, one wants to shout, but rather the presence of the dead. This book is chock full of such cringe-worthy moments.

The one thing Motion does excel at is his sense of measure, particularly the use of iambics to slow the text down & lend it a sense of gait. Still, he suffers, as do so many “new formalists,”¹ from the occasional need to add unnecessary language just to keep lines even, as in “square of” in

With storm light in the east but no rain yet
I came in from mowing my square of lawn
and paused in the doorway to glance round
at my handiwork and the feckless apple blossom

blurring those trim stripes and Hovver-sweeps²
I had meant to last.

I actually like feckless, in part because the trochee works there, and the emphasis on one-syllable words in the first line is effective. But inflating the second line to keep thing consistent gives the passage as a whole – this is the first sentence of the book’s title poem – a bloated feeling, every bit as blurred as the trim stripes of Motion’s lawn.

Trite imagery (green holiday / red christening), vague thinking, padded metrics, overwriting everywhere – what exactly are the values that Britain’s version of Official Verse Culture is trying to champion? If ever one wanted to construct an argument that the British were incapable of serious thought, here is exhibit A. Yet Britain has often had brilliant poets & has many now. They are obviously quite apart from the inbred world of received culture that Motion represents, which feels like the 18th century gone to rot.


¹ Who are not formalists at all, but rather pattern obsessives for whom the creation of new form is something of a taboo.

² My guess is that Motion means “ Hoover.” The phrase “Hovver-sweeps” never appeared on the internet until this review.


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