In a valedictory essay as Poet Laureate summarised in today's Guardian, Andrew Motion strikes a familiarly self-pitying note. Writing Laureate poems has been hard. Worse still, editors of newspapers phone round to find someone willing to say how bad each of his official poems is: 'Then they have their story --- poet laureate writes another no-good poem.' On the bright side, Motion reveals that he has friends in high places: 'I've certainly never looked for thanks from the royal family, and have only been surprised and touched when it has come. (Which it has, from the Queen, Prince Charles and --- for the poem I wrote about her 100th birthday --- the late Queen Mother).' The parenthetical elaboration is priceless.
Some of Motion's own poetry I quite like, but when it comes to war poetry he is of the 'sad shires' school, uselessly wringing his hands over the pity and futility of it all. His afterword to 101 Poems Against War, with its bland anti-war rhetoric and its assumption of an easy consensus, infuriated me. Motion doesn't want war poems to challenge or dismay or unsettle him; he only wants poems which keep harmony with his melancholic mood music. As he has approvingly stated, 'We can guess what attitude poets will take to a conflict before we read a line they have written about it.' Predictability has become a poetic strength.
Motion acknowledges one regret during his tenure as Poet Laureate: 'I wish ... that someone had flown me to Iraq and Afghanistan and encouraged me to write about the wars in those places.' Andrew, with your connections you could have made it happen, and you didn't. You still can. Instead of sighing like a poor man's Edward Thomas about what might have been, why not take inspiration from a Canadian poet, Suzanne Steele, who will be going out to Afghanistan as a war artist later this year? I, for one, would be genuinely keen to read your poetry from the war zone. Rather that than an official poem about the Queen Mother's birthday.