One night last week I went to a reading by Andrew Motion, thrilled at the opportunity to hear one of my favorite poets, and so close to home! I heard Motion, Poet Laureate of England from 1999 to 2009, read once before, in Toronto, at the International Festival of Authors. I was profoundly moved and changed by that experience, partly of course by the poems themselves with their richly evocative detail, their deeply felt experience, and my own sudden shock of recognition, but also partly by the way he read, the way he presented them.
At many of the readings I attend, the authors give the briefest of introductions to their poems or story excerpts, if indeed any at all, and then read in a monotone. When this happens, I have trouble paying attention and find myself thinking If you are so bored with your work, how do you expect me to be interested?
When I heard him in Toronto, I felt Motion hit just the right balance of talking about each poem, giving it some context, before reading it. He was engaged with the audience, a huge one, filling the large auditorium. Slipping in some dry wit here and there to keep us alert, he at one point provoked a spurt of laughter from someone in the back, causing him to smile wryly and say, “Exactly!” And, although the poem he then read, one that is in this book and that he read again last week, is enough to break your heart, the laughter was not out of place. The world can be confusing and chaotic; by focusing in on one moment in time, going into it fully, we find ourselves grounded again.
Hearing him last week, his introductions to the poems somewhat different for an audience that was almost entirely students, writers themselves, I understood suddenly that when I first started reading my poems, when my initial collection came out, I had unconsciously based my reading style on his. The introductions, yes, but also the way he read the poems themselves which, while not flamboyant in any way, gave each line the attention it deserved, honoring the emotions it encapsulated and evoking them in us.
This collection from 2002 contains his first poems as Poet Laureate. I picked it up at a used tool and book sale in a market town in England, because it was by him, of course, but also because I was curious as to how so private a poet would write for state occasions. The answer takes me deeply into what it means to be a writer, one whose work is out in the world.
I wrote poetry for many years just for myself; it was my way of making sense of the world. When my first book came out, I honestly didn't expect anyone to read it. I didn't feel that my privacy was violated in any way, but I just didn't think anyone would care about these poems that were so personal to me. And yet some people do, as I was reminded just today by my friend Laura.
Some of the poems in this book come out of Motion's childhood experiences. While I never went to boarding school or fly fishing with my mother, I recognise the reactions and emotions he conjures. What is private to him nonetheless touches a shared experience. Similarly, his poems about England in the section The Stormcloud of the Nineteenth Century and his other poems commissioned in his role as Laureate are clearly written out of a deeply private feeling but capture something that we hold in common. His short poem on the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, for example, moves me to tears no matter how often I read it because it so perfectly sums up the beauty and tragedy of her life and her own struggles with the boundary between what is private and what is public.
Motion's investigation into that boundary in this collection touches on what I value most in this work I have taken on: reading and writing enable us to experience the world through someone else's eyes. As a result, our own gaze becomes more empathic. We are reminded that while we may each be our own private spinning world, there is much that we hold in common and a shared aspect to our lives.
This is a good thing. However, finding the right balance between what is private and what may be made public becomes more challenging every day, with the proliferation of technology that can track our every move and changing social mores that seem to make reticence a thing of the past.
What challenges have you encountered in balancing your privacy with what is shared publicly?