Motion and emotion: the inner life of a public figure

This new memoir is a fascinating study of how the two, competing strands can be developed alongside each other
September 6, 2023
Sleeping on Islands: A Life in Poetry
Andrew Motion (RRP: £20)
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One of Andrew Motion’s most powerful poems is an elegy disguised as a love song. “Serenade” is about the pony that triggered the shaping trauma of his life—when he was 17, his mother fell off Serenade and then lived paralysed in hospital for years until she died. Motion began and ended his earlier memoir of childhood with this tragedy.

Now, in Sleeping on Islands, his new, more career-focused memoir, he returns to it, and then describes living with this bitter loss. First at Oxford, then working as poetry editor at Chatto & Windus, teaching at Hull and East Anglia universities, and finally serving as poet laureate. But we are also invited to read his public advancement as an enduring quest for the father—or, at any rate, father figures in the shape of famous, extremely well-connected older male poets. “Serenade” echoes a poem about retired racehorses written by Philip Larkin, one of the most notable of these figures.

Written in elegant fragments, with a lovely eye for detail, amused, offbeat and quirky, Sleeping on Islands traces Motion’s gradual realisation that the really enduring influence on his life and work was not his beloved lost mother but his relationship with his actual father, “the saddest person I’ve ever known”, and “an expert with silence”.

Motion cannot interest his father in his poetry, nor in the online Poetry Archive he founded as laureate. He fails to introduce him to the Queen. But when the father produces a seating plan of the Nuremberg Trials (which he had never previously said he attended) and starts recounting his war memories, he releases something new in Motion’s poems: the soldier figure, the shaping power of silent grief.

Despite many celebrity vignettes, the memoir becomes a fascinating study in how a poet re-contours his inner world while living a very determinedly public life.