Harry Patch and Andrew Motion

Warning: this is a bad-tempered and negative posting, and fans of the Poet Laureate may find it offensive.

There’s a clip on the BBC website of Andrew Motion reading a new poem of his to Harry Patch, the last surviving British soldier of the Great War.

Harry Patch is rather a wonderful old gentleman, and has assumed the responsibilities of a national icon with considerable dignity. Here he seems to enjoy Motion reciting his verses, which detail key moments in Harry’s life.

Maybe it’s because I’m a bit of an old grump, but I can’t feel so enthusiastic. Motion’s persona always reminds me of a decent but not very aware vicar, and this poem reminded me of a vicar at a funeral, faced with the difficult job of making an ordinary life sound significant. There is the chumminess – “your mum and dad”; there is the stretching of a small anecdote – Harry grows a moustache then shaves it off. And just plain waffle – “Patch – Harry Patch, that’s a good name. Shakespearean. It might be one of Hal’s men at Agincourt…”Added to that, Motion gives a few poeticisms – lines that sound meaningful, but on reflection probably aren’t. The first line: “A curve is a straight line caught bending” Eh? Does that mean anything? What’s it got to do with anything?

The core of the poem, though, is based on the reason that Harry is being celebrated – his war experience, and is indeed touching, as any battlefield story of a friend dying must be. In this section, Motion can lose the poeticisms and tell the story straight – but I wonder whether his poetic version is necessary – Patch has told the story himself, with the authenticity of his own voice.

The old man seemed to enjoy hearing the anecdotes of his own life told again, with nice phrasing and a posh accent, and one wouldn’t want to begrudge him the pleasure. But as I say, I’m a bit of a grouch. I notice that the reading is happening in a stately home of some kind, in front of an audience of distinguished worthies, with a recorded tribute from Prince Charles. This is official England making clear its attitude to the Great War and (dare I say it) distancing itself from the official England of ninety years ago.

Andrew Motion takes his job as Laureate very seriously (Has he ever in his entire life taken anything any other way except seriously? The only expression I’ve ever seen on his face, I think, is serious decent concern.) and devotes much of his time to arguing for causes that nobody will argue against – “Reading is a good thing”, for example, or “We really ought to care about the environment.” “The Great War was a bad thing” is another of those propositions that everyone agrees with, that can be guaranteed to set other vicar-types nodding seriously. After which, they feel a lot better, thoroughly confirmed in their own virtue.

Concentrating on the experience of one soldier is history made simple. Motion’s poem does the usual thing of expressing the pathos of the war without any historical context. This fits the same pattern as Des Browne’s blanket pardon for all those shot during the war for dereliction of duty. This made Mr Browne feel better, I suspect, and got rid of the problem of troublesome protestors, but it was sheer gesture politics, and sentimental. Mr Browne has not always shown himself exemplary in dealing with troops currently fighting in Iraq.

Motion’s poem is a “story in five acts”, five anecdotes without much commentary, or attempt at giving them a meaning. He makes Harry Patch sound ordinary, though at one time put into extraordinary circumstances. Would previous laureates have served Harry Patch better? John Betjeman might have used Patch’s experiences to point a decent and human moral. Ted Hughes would have brought out the mythic dimension that he saw within every human. Both men had an instinctive knowledge that no other human is simply ordinary. But Motion – well, the poem will make something nice for the vicar to read at the funeral.

12 Comments

  1. Roger Farrant
    Posted March 7, 2008 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    There’s a simple explanation of the “curve is a straight line caught bending” line in the BBC documentary which follows the writing of the poem.

    It’s on Fri March 7th at 7.30pm on BBC1(West). It’ll also be on the BBC iplayer for one week after this date if you don’t live in the West region.

    Give it a try – it might change your opinion of Andrew Motion’s poem. It’s really rather clever and moving when you understand more of the references.

  2. Posted March 7, 2008 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    So it’s clever and moving but only if you’re clever enough to understand the references?

  3. Wendy Patch
    Posted March 7, 2008 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    It gets kind of wearing hearing about this “wonderful old man” when you are part of the family who he refuses to acknowledge, indeed, he claims all his relatives are dead. I a granddaughter am very much alive and very much aware that the media has put this old fellow on some sort of pedestal. He is no more wonderful than all the countless other men who fought in that war, he just happens to still be alive.

  4. Posted March 8, 2008 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Wendy-
    Thanks for the interesting comment, which underlines that Andrew Motion is presenting your grandfather as a symbol, not as a complicated human being with faults like the rest of us.
    Still, I can’t help feeling a certain sense of wonder whenever I think of anyone, whatever their character, who has reached such an age.

  5. Jane
    Posted March 9, 2008 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    WENDY – WHEN YOU HAVE AT LAST LOST HARRY, YOU WILL THEN REALISE THAT THERE IS NOTHING LIKE LOSING YOUR GRANDPARENTS. HOWEVER HE HAS TREATED YOU AND THE FAMILY, QUITE RIGHTLY HE IS ONLY ONE OF THOUSANDS WHO FOUGHT IN THAT TERRIBLE WAR,IF YOU HAVE A GOD THANK HIM THAT YOU ARE NOT THERE FIGHTING NOW, AS HE DID.
    GRANDPARENTS ARE VERY SPECIAL PEOPLE AND IT WAS ONLY IN THE LAST YEARS OF THEIR LIVES THAT I GOT TO KNOW MY PATERNAL GRANDPARENTS WHO I LOST AT AGE 86, YOU ARE PRIVILEGED STILL TO HAVE HARRY, BE HAPPY IF HE IS HAPPY, AND LOVE HIM FOR WHO HE IS, NOT WHAT HE DID.
    KINDEST WISHES, JANE.

  6. Jessica
    Posted March 11, 2008 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    I wonder if there is a comparison to be made with Simon Armitage’s recent ‘The Not Dead’ which tells the stories of disabled servicemen. Like Motion’s poem, Armitage’s three interlinking poems tell the stories of ‘ordinary’ men in extraordinary circumstances, but with a measure of righteous anger at the way in which they have been and continue to be treated by the government and society that sent them to war. Having written about disabled ex-servicemen of the First World War, I found it almost unbearably moving, in a way that I didn’t feel about the excerpts of Motion’s poem that I have heard.

  7. Posted March 11, 2008 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this. I shall look out Armitage’s poem.

  8. Posted March 11, 2008 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    Ive found a website
    http://jeancalder.wordpress.com/2007/11/17/remembrance/
    which has one of Armitage’s “The Not Dead”poems.

    This was based on the account of a woman whose husband came back damaged and disfigured from peace-keeping in Bosnia. He attempted suicide several times, and tried to strangle her, but she did her best to help him through it.

    “The Manhunt”

    After the first phase,
    After passionate nights and intimate days,
    Only then would he let me trace
    The frozen river which ran through his face,
    Only then would he let me explore
    The blown hinge of his lower jaw,
    And handle and hold
    The damaged, porcelain collar-bone,
    And mind and attend the fractured rudder of shoulder-blade,
    And finger and thumb the parachute silk of his punctured lung.
    Only then could I bind the struts
    And climb the rungs of his broken ribs,
    And feel the hurt
    Of his grazed heart.
    Skirting along,
    Only then could I picture the scan,
    The foetus of metal beneath his chest
    Where the bullet had finally come to rest.
    Then I widened the search,
    Traced the scarring back to its source
    To a sweating, unexploded mine
    Buried deep in his mind,
    Around which every nerve in his body had tightened and closed.
    Then, and only then, did I come close.

  9. Posted July 28, 2009 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

    PLAYING OLD HARRY
    (A counter-charge to Andrew Motion’s.
    poem on Harry Patch)

    A road-mender might well be ‘Patch’
    but cruel joke on a squaddie,
    sent forward yet, still leaking life
    from scarcely patched-up body.
    Despatched on politician’s whim
    to corner foreign patch;
    earning mention in despatches
    or meeting swift despatch.
    For it’s Tommy this an’ Tommy that
    but no kow-tow breaths Harry:
    “By jingo, war’s just Tommy rot!
    When bugler calls – quick-tarry.”

    For Harry was a conscript lad
    signed up at birth – no say;
    his cross was nearly German Iron;
    but he lived – to live – for many a day.
    Now ‘heroes’ fight for thrill and cash
    ‘gainst ancient thrice-wronged foe,
    armed scarce-more than with righteous spleen;
    if well matched – would we go?
    With improvised Petard they hoist
    our squaddies for Mohammed’s catch,
    and no old soldier gives the lie;
    we’ve said goodbye to Harry Patch.

  10. macus
    Posted August 6, 2009 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

    fantastic brilliant moving an inspiration to all forget pop stars footballers who have egoes as big as there heads and wallets harry and the other chap on earlier im 43 i cried like a child my heart goes out to the familys of these true heros marcus and family in halifax w yorks

  11. Sue Surman
    Posted August 16, 2009 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    I am not a writer, just a lover of poetry. I too was touched to my heart by the depth of the feelings this stirred up in me and I sat completely absorbed by this simple story. Most of all it was the length of this dear man’s life that amazed me most. The changes he has seen and the horror of wars experienced has left an impression that will stay with me always.

  12. Jon Lighter
    Posted April 4, 2013 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    I taught literature for many years, and I, too, find the poem tedious and uninspired; except perhaps for the very last section – which is scarcely about the war at all.

    Motion doesn’t see the man Patch, he sees a symbol: a person whose notoriety and longevity require artistic notice. Yet there’s more to provoke thought in Patch’s stoic, and perhaps puzzled, expression than in Motion’s undistinguished attempt to say something memorable about the man’s life.


One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] Update: some interesting discussion on George Simmers’ site of this poem […]

Post a Comment

%d bloggers like this: