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.