Friday 16 October 2009

Stop Motion

The Cinder Path, by Andrew Motion (Faber 2009)

Andrew Motion’s The Cinder Path is a collection of both beginnings and endings. Indeed, many of his poems exist in a state of suspension between the two; between the proverbial fall and the inevitable impact with the ground. Take ‘On the Balcony’, the first poem of the collection. It takes off in medias res, and in it ‘The metal sun hangs still, its shadows fixed / and permanent. The sea-smell mixed // with thyme and oleander throws a drape insidious as mist across the drop // of roofs and aerials’. As the reader takes in these last few words (‘across the drop …’), he plummets through the space between the stanzas, only to find his neck twisted roughly back towards the skies: suddenly his sight is soaring in the exact opposite direction. A relentless downward impulse seems to grip the whole collection, squashing experience against the ground. What’s left is a concentrated, solid slab of poetry: The Cinder Path.

It is hardly surprising that Motion should feel himself caught between opposing forces; a beginning and an end. The Cinder Path is the first collection he has published since Public Propetry in 2002, and crucially the first since relinquishing the Laureateship to Carol Ann Duffy in May. Motion has spoken about the impact of his public duties upon his writing. He suffered from writer’s block, and felt unable to produce poetry to order in response to public, and often royal, events. Whilst these obligations were largely self-imposed (there was never a quota Motion had to fulfil), his responsibilities as a public poet seem to have weighed heavily on him: ‘When you’re being looked at very hard, it’s very hard to look back. And that made me stop paying attention to the world in a way that allowed me then to write about it’ (1). With some commentators questioning the continued relevance of the post of Poet Laureate, Motion’s difficulties have a bearing on how public poetry is viewed more widely, if such a thing even exists (2). All this raises the question of how to create poetry that engages with the public. Is this goal even desirable?

The Cinder Path is a collection strung between two deaths. Five early poems, first published in early 2008 as ‘The Five Acts of Harry Patch’, chronicle the life of the eponymous ‘Last Fighting Tommy’ (the last living British veteran of World War One). Though obviously written before Patch’s death this July, these poems are littered with intimations of decline that began a long time ago: ‘You grow a moustache, check the mirror, notice / You’re forty years old, then the next day shave it off, / check the mirror again – and find you’re seventy’. What these poems treat so expertly is the process of hunting down the past through memories. Motion’s subject is fragmented, like his fellow Tommies who ‘get stung on arms and faces’. Harry Patch is glimpsed in passing, a flash in a mirror here and there, the pieces scarcely holding together as a single person. This is the nature of memory, and of the frail, brittle man Patch had become in his last years.

Motion has given Patch’s life a Five Act structure, with each Act a sonnet, and he duly muses ‘Patch, Harry Patch, that’s a good name, / Shakespearean, it might have been one of Hal’s men’. It is not clear that Motion is entirely at ease here, and at other points in these poems. The shift into Patch’s idiom at the end of the first poem (‘… and not catch a packet’) is especially jarring. It is not that Patch would not have said those words. Quite to the contrary, Patch most likely said exactly these words, and that is the issue: too often Motion turns to a snatch of Patch’s speech or a scrupulously gleaned bit of WWI research when he would most likely have said it better in his own words. Patch’s voice, faithfully transcribed, is still-born in Motion’s mouth. Motion is too reticent to sing Patch’s voice into existence for him; to say what Patch would say, if he had the poet’s gift. Instead, he incorporates tidbits of Patch’s speech into the voice of the speaker of the poem.

The result is not patchwork poetry, but patchy poetry, with its seams showing. Motion seems to feel that letting the man’s own words speak out is somehow more authentic. But poetry is cultivated, not found. It is necessarily artificial, and even an attempt to emulate the observed colloquialism of a real being cannot but be an affectation. The last words of the fifth poem are ‘there is that flash, / or was until you said, and the staff blacked out the window.’ Everything in the poem lives or dies by Patch’s word, and we are left with the image of Motion straining, with pen poised, to hear what he will say next. This is the pose of the journalist interviewer, not the poet.

The Patch poems are very much Laureate poems (they were commissioned by BBC West for the television programme Inside Out West), and it is therefore curious that Motion should choose to include them in this particular collection. They are poetry-as-monument; public monument. And Motion is too remote from his subject. He is just another member of the crowd looking up at the statue, and he is no more privy to the spark that will illuminate it all than the next person. It is not that such poetry is bound to be found wanting: Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Churchill’s Funeral’ is exemplary in the same class. Still, Motion’s best work lies elsewhere in the collection.

A poem, especially a modern poem, is often conceived as a moment suspended in time. Motion’s ‘My Masterpiece’ is an extremely accomplished instance. This poem examines how the effect can be achieved in a painting, or rather in a painting through poetry. The poet, like a gallery curator, directs the reader’s gaze to several details of the painting, lighting upon ‘this poacher-boy / who checked his snare / but discovered instead / his bare-headed girl / with time to kill’. This is a metaphor for what poetry tries to do: to trap a moment of time, and there is always a danger that the moment will be killed, or anaesthetised, in the process. The poem is at once oblique and expansive, and the miller’s ‘stream by his wheel’ recalls the mystical symbolism of William Butler Yeats. These are emblems of the vast, continuous expanse of time from which the poem has hidden itself. It revolves around a central female figure, with an ‘unknowable frown’, a sort of inverted, parallel-universe Mona Lisa. The ‘view / extending behind her, / the mile upon mile / of blue-green hills’ is an effect of perspective, aided by layers ‘upon’ layers of paint applied to a two-dimensional canvas. But this is no less a space that could be inhabited; no less real. Paradoxically, the poem’s inscrutability is intrinsic to its depth.

As ‘My Masterpiece’ concludes, ‘a perilous sun-shaft // flees through a landscape / and just for a second / fulfils what it strikes // before galleon clouds / storm in behind it / and drop their anchors.’ The metaphors of the last stanza are mixed as deliberately as the ‘blue-green’ paint before it: ‘drop’ is caught perfectly between the rain clouds and the anchors, applying equally well to both, and the two images flip rapidly in and out of existence, like Wittgenstein’s famous duck-rabbit. The whole poem exists in a liminal state. After all, we are told that the painting is called ‘Madonna in a Window’ (my emphasis), as though the central figure were trapped in a pane of glass, not quite inside, not quite outside. The result is a perfect shimmer-effect, which mirrors Motion himself as he oscillates between Motion the poet, and his imagined alter ego, Motion the painter. 

When ‘My Masterpiece’ is read in the light cast by the rest of the collection, the reader begins to see ‘the high Renaissance’ and ‘the height of the harvest’ as physical heights, real peaks. ‘My Masterpiece’ is a poem caught falling from these heights, just before the whole thing ‘drop[s]’ to the ground in the last line, and breaks. This insistent, ubiquitous downward pull makes the moments when Motion allows flight all the more sweet. The poet credits meeting his current partner, Kyeong-Soo, to whom The Cinder Path is dedicated, with the recent efflorescence of his poetry (3). ‘A Good Night Kiss’, a poem about a midnight tryst between Motion and Kyeong-Soo, is a poem in flight. Even the death of Kyeong-Soo’s grandmother is figured in terms of an ascent: ‘and kiss-kiss is the sound of her black sandals / making peace with the earth then taking leave of it.’

This is a rare, fleeting moment of lightness, and necessarily so, because a consciousness of the ephemeral nature of experience pervades the work. In the title poem, ‘The Cinder Path’ has been incinerated long before we discover the source of the fire in the final line: ‘That elm tree withstanding / the terrible heat / of its oily green flame.’ The moment is dead before it has even taken place. This flame is inherent in the poem itself, and perhaps all poetry. It is its invigorating force, lighting the whole thing up suddenly and brilliantly, before burning itself up into ashes. Motion is hardly saying that all poetry is ephemeral: the elm tree withstands, caught for ever at the instant of its extinction, which is somehow also the moment of its birth.

Perhaps the weakest parts of The Cinder Path are Motion’s forays into ‘found poetry’. Some poems, like ‘From the Journal of a Disappointed Man’, are fictions of found poetry, and again it’s possible to sense Motion yearning after a more authentic type of poetry, something not just, or not exclusively, made up.  By contrast, ‘The Feather Pole’ is a genuine example of the genre, featuring lines like ‘Bush Oven I am pleased to discover is a Norfolk / variant for the Long-tailed Titmouse, but properly / the intricate and dome-shaped nest here likened / to an oven …’. And yet, found poetry is always a sort of fiction. After all, the poet is still selecting material that he thinks is poetic, and leaving the rest where he found it. At its worst, found poetry is a frivolous and somewhat half-hearted feint at an abdication of the poet’s artistic agency. The concept of found poetry gels rather nicely with the modish, relativistic idea that we are all poets, especially when we don’t know it. But we do not believe for a second that any good poet is about to throw their lot in with the monkeys with typewriters.

The collection ends, as it began, with a death. This time it is that of Motion’s father: another veteran, of another world war. These poems came into being much like Thomas Hardy’s Poems of 1912-13, which were composed after the death of Hardy’s wife Emma Gifford. The epigram to that collection was ‘Veteris Vestigiae Flammae’, or ‘Traces of an Old Flame’, and the poems about Motion’s father might be this flame. These are the most beautiful and moving poems in the collection. Motion compellingly treats death as an effect of perspective in ‘All Possibilities’: ‘My dead father, who never knew what hit him, / is taking his evening walk through the village.’ He shows how a person’s death can spill back over the rest of their person’s life in the memory of those they leave behind, so that their whole life’s story is coloured by its ending. Motion’s father is ‘My dead father’, dead in life, even when the poet is remembering him vividly alive.

In ‘What Have We Here?’ Motion touchingly describes his father catching him reading a book in bed at night as a child (something he was forbidden to do): ‘Dad checked a page, before his weight lifted and went.’ With him, Motion’s poetry takes flight.

It is personal poetry like this, not the monumental poems of Andrew Motion’s Laureateship, will be held dear by the public, a public of individual, private readers. Perhaps, instead of attempting to write public poetry, poets should take another path to engagement with the people, and write poetry imbued with private, personal emotions and experiences. Such a poetry need not be solipsistic, or morbidly inward-turning. There is still a place for the Poet Laureate in our society. Poetry makes the transition from something private to something that can be appreciated more widely when it strikes, like that errant ‘sun-shaft’, upon emotions and experiences that are in some sense universal, or in other words, human. At least, more human, more common, than the prescribed, stage-managed ‘public’ experiences of events such as death of Harry Patch, or worse still, anything to do with the Royal Family.

1) Interview with Andrew Motion, by Mick Brown, Daily Telegraph, 30 March 2009
2) Poet Laureate: does poetry need one?, by Ben Christiansen, Daily Telegraph, 24 February 2009
3) Interview with Andrew Motion, by Mick Brown, Daily Telegraph, 30 March 2009

Enjoyed this article? Share it with others.


See poetry-queen Shirley Dent’s Guardian Unlimited Arts Blog

Published poet, Ion Martea, defends poetry for pleasure, in a Battle in Print, Of one who must be happy: an argument for poetry in relationship to please

James Wilkes gives a response to the Battle of Ideas debate, Should Poetry Please?

Bloodaxe Books

Hear poets read their work at the online poetry archive

Listen to Radio 4’s Poetry Please and the BBC’s poetry out loud

Penned in the Margins puts on UK-wide literature events, along with resident poet and Culture Wars contributor, Tom Chivers

See also Salt Publishing

Monthly contemporary poetry at Poetry Magazine

The Poetry Society

The Poetry Book Society

The Poetry Book Foundation

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.