The audience in a packed ballroom at the Royal Hotel in Scarborough were lucky to have the chance to hear Andrew Motion, one of our leading modern poets, read from his new novel Silver and answer some of their questions. Andrew Motion was a fine poet laureate for ten years who found that the post was indeed the “double edged chalice” that he read about in a press article when he was appointed. While speaking from a position of quiet pride in what he achieved and great respect for the post, he explained that a position of that kind may tend to “disturb the balance of the creative mind”, while at the same time giving an opportunity to be an advocate for poetry, something he did with great dedication and success. Poems do not necessarily arrive on demand when they are needed.
When he started to write Silver he had just come to the end of his term as poet laureate, his father had recently died and he had just remarried, so it was a time of change and readjustment for him. He described the writing of the book as a “chance for some serious fun” and while I haven’t read it yet the extracts which he read out showed it to be just that. It is a fine piece of storytelling written with the descriptive sensitivity of a poet. It is a return to the novel rather than a sequel and the Jim Hawkins of Silver who returns to the island is his own Jim, a more sensitive and observant character than the original. He is a beady eyed nature lover who describes everything for the reader. There is no parody here, trying to take on Stevenson would have been unwise. It is a new take on the book written in a different style of prose from the original. While he avoided the earlier sequels and prequels to Treasure Island which have been written, Andrew Motion did reread the whole of Stevenson’s considerable output so, while it is clearly different, this new book was also steeped in the sensibilities of Stevenson’s prose almost by osmosis. It had always been a special book for him and the themes within it, father and sons, secrets, seeming lack of consequences or cause and effect, a deep understanding of human nature when placed in extreme circumstances, and things unfinished and unresolved, suggested a fresh way forward for his writing at a time when it was needed. His poetry is direct and accessible while also being profound and he saw no reason why a rattling good story should exclude the possibility of serious content, even if the arbiters of public taste may sometimes try to suggest otherwise. Dickens managed it after all. The line between poetry and prose does not necessarily have to be rigid. Poems have been written which contain little poetry and prose can be filled with a poetic sensibility if the writer chooses. This is at the heart of what he wanted to achieve with Silver.
This was a very interesting time with a distinguished writer who was every bit as articulate, self effacing and quietly proud as I expected him to be. It is always a pleasure to hear an author read their own work. I would have loved to hear him read some of the poems from his last collection The Cinder Path too but you can’t have everything. It was good to see him in action- or as a friend suggested to me “in motion”.