Andrew Motion

Andrew Motion’s most recent book of poems is The Customs House. ‘The Discoveries of Geography’ owes a thank you to A History of the World in Twelve Maps by Jerry Brotton.

If only the stories were not so tempting – but from day one I started to embroider, and in no time was suggesting a country far to the North where fish are as large as dragons, and even minor administrators eat off gold plates, and sleep on gold beds.

That is why I have packed in my birch canoe a robe made of the feathers of more than 100 different species of bird.

So that when I have...

Poem: ‘The Wave’

Andrew Motion, 1 April 2004

For my mother at 75

The sun-room, but there’s only drizzly rain Finessing silly doodles on the view Of what would otherwise be summer grass And blameless lupins blazing at the stake. So all eyes turn indoors. And here again Like kindly furies standing over you Are friends and family who raise a glassThen falter, smile, and wait for you to speak.

You flap your hand, half anxious, half...

Poem: ‘In Memory of Ruby Yates’

Andrew Motion, 1 October 1998

Here comes Stanley Spencer with his pram – his bowl-cut – and his crazy-uncle specs – so this must be your childhood

Ruby – must be Cookham – must be 19 – 19-what – is nothing black and white – what sort of question’s that –

the war has come and gone – let’s call it 1920 and you ten – and look there’s Stanley...

‘Do you want to …’ and sometimes ‘Would you like to …’ my mother sang, never sure which was right. ‘Do you want to swing on a star? Carry moonbeams home in a jar?’ I was six but I thought I knew what she meant.‘

Poem: ‘Zero’

Andrew Motion, 19 June 1997

This is not the point, but you had only to look at your soft red atlas to have it fall open where years ago you had written PERSIA for some reason, AFGANISTAN and KASHMIR, adrift in your schoolgirl dream of ancient and modern.

The point is, rather, that once you had shown me the way into those places, perched on slabs of frost-shattered rock then floating on eagle-thermals over the tawny...

Poem: ‘Goethe in the Park’

Andrew Motion, 9 March 1995

The slates have gone from that shed in the park where sometimes the old sat if they were desperate, and sometimes the young with nowhere better to fuck,

and now given some luck the whole piss-stinking thing will fall to the ground, no, I mean will lift into space, no evidence left

in its earthly place of the grey graffiti runes, the deck of glue, the bench with broken ribs, where if things...

My father and mother were Adam and Eve back to the garden hand in hand, forgiven and blameless, their lives their own.

But this was no garden: this attic flat was an eye on the Thames blinded with rain, their landlord’s dog a wolf at the door.

They didn’t care; for all they knew love was the roof above their heads, love paid bills and kept them fed.

By night they took their deckled...

Three Poems

Andrew Motion, 28 June 1990

The Vision of that Ancient Man

I was taking a piss when the dredger rode over our pleasure

like a swan rogering its mate, and we all sank down-a-down.

The porthole groaned and held ... the light went sick ...

and eventually something shitty erupted out of the can and I was a dead man.

But I lived. Unlike my mate I lived, and without her I can’t tell one thing from t’other.

First I...

Poem: ‘Run’

Andrew Motion, 21 December 1989

In the small hours I slipped back to childhood for a moment

and lay in my old bed with its view of the chestnut tree. It was winter

and you had just died; I was excited, still thinking your death was a thing apart

which soon I would put in the ground like a body to visit from time to time, and otherwise forget.

But take Ruth, who drowned last week.

I used to fancy her – now all I think is...

Poem: ‘Tamworth’

Andrew Motion, 13 October 1988

Red brick on red brick.

A boiled eye in a greenhouse.

Lilac smoking in sere gutters and crevices.

A pigtailed head on lamp-post after lamp-post.


We had taken my mother’s estate and driven into the blue – she was in hospital then, and didn’t care.


Out of nowhere, nowhere else to go, stuck in the parched afternoon, collapsed,


Two Poems

Andrew Motion, 9 October 1986

In the Beginning

You existed for months as an echo bouncing off darkness and silence, then changed yourself at a glance

to the delicate bones of a kipper dandled to and fro in the waves of a sunless ocean

before shouldering into the world with a crown blobbed like a bird’s egg and indigo stampers’ feet

but nothing about you a fragment more or less than perfect, even though putting...

Private Thomas

Andrew Motion, 19 December 1985

R. George Thomas is a cautious man. His life of Edward Thomas (no relation) is ‘a portrait’ not ‘a biography’. Maybe this is just as well. The poet was a cautious man too. He was also a scrupulous one, and when we read in the first few pages that research for this book began ‘in the early 1960s’, we are encouraged to feel that author and subject are kindred spirits. Our expectations are raised still further by discovering that ‘some years before her death’ Edward Thomas’s ‘widow Helen gave her friend George Thomas open access to all her papers which included some eighteen hundred letters’. Here at last, we are made to think, is the definitive account of one of the century’s most important writers: important for his intrinsic qualities, and because his work illuminates the motives of the first great Modernists, as well as the treatment they have received from subsequent generations of English poets. Anyone contemplating the life of Edward Thomas has the chance to tell a human story of great fascination and poignancy, and simultaneously to characterise a literary climate which profoundly affects our own. Edward Thomas was a man in whom an enormous number of conflicting compulsions – personal as well as artistic – met, were recognised, and were robed as destinies.’

Poem: ‘Firing Practice’

Andrew Motion, 21 February 1985

You knew you were lucky, born all of a piece and born into peace. So why were you seeing your father off from the flagstone step wearing your sweet little cowboy suit – distressed leather chaps with grubby fringes – and him in his real, steely-pressed uniform?

Once in a while he would take you: Daimler sickness swaying to Salisbury Plain, and a rainy weekend of firing – a...

Poem: ‘These Days’

Andrew Motion, 5 April 1984

It might be any night these days, when every night is like nothing on earth. Tired with drinking, we long

for your riotous children to wear themselves out and shamble off to their beds.Make it be soon, my eyes say

rolling up to the ceiling – a relished, leisurely roll which tells you as wellI want you. Bowing low

so your forehead rests on the rumpled tablecloth just for a second, you...

Poem: ‘Coming to Visit’

Andrew Motion, 6 October 1983

Your daughter Kate saw the ghost the same summer night your twin came for her visit. I had been happy, before, always to leave my place in your bed for the twin to take it, but this time something was wrong.

In the spare-room, staring down at the single acacia and beech which suddenly loomed like a wood, I was willing the close-set leaves to obscure me, to let me be lost to the world and...

Two Poems

Andrew Motion, 18 November 1982

Open Secrets

‘The first time father erupted that day was at Florrie rolling the dustbins downhill to their emptying-pit. From the upstairs landing I saw him arms crossed with his dressing-gown’s dark green paisley swirled in the wind, and Florrie scarlet, still half-swiveled round to the litter as if it surprised her, tattering out in a trail of scrumpled tissues and newspapers...

Poem: ‘Resident at the Club’

Andrew Motion, 4 March 1982

Once there was Grayzo and me, now there is only me. By twelve, when servants have closed the bar and gone wherever they go to sleep, the Club is my own. I am drunk

as usual tonight, weaving my way to bed through the hushed saloon with its ropes of cigarette smoke, then out to the balcony steps. It was here that Grayzo stopped me,

using his pompous ironical voice:Permit me to show you the...

Poem: ‘The First of Things’

Andrew Motion, 2 April 1981


Almost time, and the sun at last round to her open classroom door. A dusty glowing bar tipped across desk-tops, paper, heads

and basking her face and hair. She lets it dazzle a moment, arms folded, one shoe eased half-off, and the room dissolves.

No drawing lesson. No children. No maps pinned low on the walls. No names. Just brilliant crude light

swimming with flecks of chalk – the...

Poem: ‘The House Through’

Andrew Motion, 20 March 1980


At the iron lodge-gates I melt for the first time, leaving rust unstirred, dew gripping a slack chain.

This is the drive I remember – a formal line through beech and open ground where horses graze as ever. So what if I

float close? What if then I touch one drinking? Slow and whiskery the warm head looms towards me, seeing

nothing but a rim of moss around the water-butt, trees, and...


Bugger me blue

22 October 1992

At the end of his review (LRB, 22 October) of Philip Larkin’s Selected Letters, edited by my co-executor of the Larkin Estate, Anthony Thwaite, Ian Hamilton wonders whether the journals shredded after Larkin’s death were ‘the originals’ or ‘digests of the originals’. They were the originals; Larkin had already got rid of the digests. My biography of Larkin, which...

Fiona’s Fan

17 October 1985

SIR: Robert Hanlon (Letters, 19 December 1985) will be pleased to hear that Chatto will be publishing Fiona Pitt-Kethley’s first full-length collection of poems, Sky Ray Lolly, in April. It will, I’m sure, leave him – and her many other fans – even more ‘charmed, zapped, entranced, amused’.

Kids Gone Rotten: ‘Treasure Island’

Matthew Bevis, 25 October 2012

John Singer Sargent’s ‘Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife’ (1885). The first return to Treasure Island was made by Robert Louis Stevenson himself. Fourteen years after the...

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This memoir takes its title and its epigraph from Wordsworth: I have owed to them In hours of weariness, sensations sweet, Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart. The poet laureate thus...

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The Eng. Lit. Patient: Andrew Motion

Jeremy Noel-Tod, 11 September 2003

John Keats John Keats John Please put your scarf on. The author of these lines is J.D. Salinger’s fictional child-poet, Seymour Glass, showing a precocious acquaintance with literary...

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Inspiration, Accident, Genius

Helen Vendler, 16 October 1997

In the sixties, three scholarly biographies of Keats appeared within a short time: W.J. Bate’s and Aileen Ward’s in 1963, Robert Gittings’s in 1968. Each is still very useful;...

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Lawful Charm

Donald Davie, 6 July 1995

Barnes’s poems prompt no new questions about poetry, and no new convictions about it. The hoariest truths about poetry will always be new and questionable to some people, especially those...

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Alas! Deceived: Philip Larkin

Alan Bennett, 25 March 1993

‘My mother is such a bloody rambling fool.’ wrote Philip Larkin in 1965, ‘that half the time I doubt her sanity. Two things she said today, for instance, were that she had...

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Rites of Passage

Anthony Quinn, 27 June 1991

Richard Rayner's new novel, his second, opens with a nervous exhibition of rhetorical trills and twitches, buttonholing the reader like a stand-up comic on his first night: ...

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Seeing yourself dead

Nicolas Tredell, 21 February 1991

Marriage, mortality, memory, the onset of middle age and the pressure of children criss-cross Andrew Motion’s latest collection. Should we treat the vivid images and incidents that comprise...

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Philip Horne, 28 September 1989

In 1982, at the age of 30, Andrew Motion, together with Blake Morrison, claimed attention in the Introduction to the Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry for the idea that ‘British...

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Broadening Ocean

Brad Leithauser, 3 March 1988

Two poets, writing in nearly the same language (British English, American English) and born at nearly the same time (1952, 1951). One, Andrew Motion, is quite well-known in this country, though...

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Tales of Hofmann

Blake Morrison, 20 November 1986

The acrimony in Michael Hofmann’s book is that of a son towards his father. Like a family photograph album, the sequence ‘My Father’s House’ records the son’s growth...

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We were the Lambert boys

Paul Driver, 22 May 1986

Andrew Motion’s book is intended to portray a family’s rich self-destructiveness. He begins with Larkin’s famous quatrain: Man hands on misery to man.   It deepens...

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Venisti tandem

Denis Donoghue, 7 February 1985

A year or two ago, Geoffrey Hartman urged literary critics to declare their independence. They should not regard criticism as an activity secondary to the literature it addressed, but as an art...

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Making sense

Denis Donoghue, 4 October 1984

In ‘A Wave’, the title-poem of his new collection, John Ashbery says, among many other things: One idea is enough to organise a life and project it Into unusual but viable forms, but...

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The Last Romantic

John Bayley, 5 May 1983

Transfiguration is into a kind of poetic absence which includes only the idea of love, not its quotidian betrayals or fulfilments. ‘What remains of us is love’ in the sense that love equates...

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Social Arrangements

John Bayley, 30 December 1982

‘New’ poetry can mean two things. When Ezra Pound said ‘make it new’ he was willing the advent of Modernism, the birth of a consciousness transformed by the...

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Claude Rawson, 17 June 1982

The title poem of St Kilda’s Parliament is about a local institution ‘quite unlike Westminster’, a gathering ‘by interested parties to discuss the day’s work and any...

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Thomas’s Four Hats

Patricia Beer, 2 April 1981

The publishers say that The Poetry of Edward Thomas is the first full-length study to deal exclusively with Thomas’s poetry (in Britain, they must mean). On the face of it, a six-decade gap...

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