During a brief pause in his walk in the footsteps of Tennyson, Roz Whistance discusses one Poet Laureate with another.

Had a black cloud and wild arctic winds suddenly swept over this perfect afternoon in the grounds of the Farringford Hotel, it would not have been more surprising. But maybe it was silly not to expect, when meeting the just-retired Poet Laureate, a sudden exposure of the soul.

Sir Andrew Motion has just returned from leading a ‘Tennyson Walk’, part of the hotel’s July celebration of the poet’s 200th birthday, and with minimal turnaround time has been interviewed by a radio journalist; has posed, languidly with his scuffed volume of poems, for photographs, before he sits down with his pint to talk. After ten years in office he is a master at promoting the cause.

He is tousled by the wind and as relaxed as you could expect a poet to be who is in the home of his hero, yet is required to perform.  He is aware of his celebrity but wishes not to be.

We sit outside the magnificent house, and while there is not a wasted word – we are on an orchestrated tight schedule as the poet is due to present a reading that evening – there are a few moments when you feel he is maintaining a performance. Asked about his background he spins a quick anecdote to describe the home on the East Anglia on the Essex Suffolk border, where he grew up with his parents and brother, and which his father’s family have had for generations: “They lived doing country things, ie petting animals if they were domesticated, and trying to kill them if they were wild.” A pause for effect.“  In that time honoured country way.” Nicely put, and delivered in his slow and tantalisingly soft tones which makes you fear you’re going to miss a gem.

His parents were not bookish – his father hardly read at all – and it was only due to a wonderful English teacher that, as he said, we were having this conversation today. “He gave me my life.” That intimacy, as suddenly as a change in the weather.

But the statement is not an exaggeration. He came from a home  without books to being that person required to create some masterpiece to commemorate a national event.  How he came to change that rather dubious honour of churning out poems to order just, as he says,“to get a kicking for it” in the press, to making the job of Poet Laureate that of national webmaster, is something he and I will talk about. But we only have ten minutes.

It was his teacher, Peter Wade – who he still visits – who showed him that poetry “wasn’t a bolt-on” to life but a part of it. They never, though, looked at any of Tennyson’s work together. “Tennyson didn’t really come into my life till rather later. I was convinced it was all dusty drapes and funny old guys in armour – and there is some of that.” However, Motion came to find that the hard core of Tennyson’s poetry “is very very good indeed, and I’ve become rather fixated by Tennyson and extremely interested in him as a person as well as his poetry.”

On a previous visit to the Island he spent time at the Farringford trying to “find” the poet,  and a poem specially written for this evening describes that search.

Here he is back again, and it seems sacrilegious, almost, talking as we are in the grounds of the great Victorian poet’s home, to ask whether Tennyson is relevant today.  Motion systematically goes through the Tennysonian topics: “Going mad.  We’re always interested in that. Money troubles. We’re always interested, especially now.  (‘Maude’ is pretty much predicated on how finances are array.) Faith. We’re rather more interested in it now than when I was a boy,” he says, siting the ‘Where is God? debate recently kicked off by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. For Motion though, the theme of time, the passing of time, and loving and losing is the overarching one.  “And we’re always going to be interested in that as long as there are people breathing. Because that’s what happens to us.”

Loving, losing, is what drives Motion’s own poetry. He watched his mother die, over nine years, following a riding accident, and his subject matter is characterised by the sudden puncturing of normal life – which is observed with keenness and  humour –  by tragedy or loss.  He has said of his poems that you look into the clear water to the mud beneath. “It would be absurd to call myself a Tennysonian poet, but he has taught me how to convey the sound of grief, which is what I am interested in.”

Bleak as this is, he says it briskly enough and you are reminded again that poetry is not “some weird bolt-on” to life, it is basic.  “Our first acquaintance with poetry was our mother bending over us making rhyming noises – that’s when poetry begins. Then it’s a chant in the corner of the playground. And then something horrible happens around puberty when the curriculum requires us to think about it differently.”  Children need to be assessed in a certain structure, but he warns of the  tendency for “the poetry within poetry to be squeezed out, and you’re left with the counterfeit which is drearily to do with totting up the images and seeing what they come to.”

It’s a damning indictment of where teaching poetry had arrived, and he worries about the emphasis in schools on exclusively studying a poet, suggesting themes would be a better way of doing it. Greatly thanks to him, poetry has achieved a renaissance which had seen it celebrated by television and even published on the backs of buses and on the London underground. It is, he says,  a broad church. “At one end you have rap; at the other the sort of difficult poetry you have to rap your head in a towel and think about properly.”

Traditionally the Laureate role was to write about national events, and he famously did an anti-Iraq war piece – probably not what the government had in mind when they appointed him. He had tweaked the tradition, and in  his ten years re-defined  the laureateship as an advisory role. “You’re an ambassador, you’re an advisor, you’re a drum beater. You hang up the bunting! You toot the bugle! You do all that stuff,” he says. Except tooting the bugle in his case means conceiving of a website which is visited by 175,000 people every month.

And being an advisor is not so much a chat about a poem over a glass of the sherry, which famously goes with the office of Laureate, as having the ear of the Prime Minister. “It’s interesting to be rung up by the Prime Minister who says ‘I’m giving a speech on Thursday and I want to say something about people who don’t have opportunities in life, and how we want to give them opportunities. And I want to reinforce this by reading something – can you recommend something?'”

Unfashionably Motion likes Gordon Brown. “He’s a fine person. I feel completely loyal to him.” Gordon Brown, he says, cares about art and culture in a way that Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher didn’t. “It didn’t show up on their radar – it wasn’t useful. But art isn’t useful, it’s valuable.”

Indeed so. Every month a million and a half pages of poems are read via the website, www.poetryarchive.org. . “What that proves is the problem about poetry is not appetite, it’s about delivery.” Book shops just don’t cut the mustard. “Where is the poetry? Upstairs at the back with the GCSE text, apart from some Seamus Heaney and one or two other people who have broken out of the ghetto. Well that’s not good enough.”  He says people feel either bashful or indifferent about finding poetry – which is why the internet works so well.

Motion doesn’t just prefer poetry to be heard aloud, he considers it vital. If you search for a poem on poetryarchive.org you’ll hear it read, either by its author or some appropriate actor. It is performance art which, he stresses, is exactly as Tennyson’s audience would have experienced it over a tot of mead. “What the internet has allowed to happen is for the primitive acoustic value of the poetry to be reaffirmed in a way they would have completely understood in the mead hall. And magnificent as the printed book is, the book, nevertheless, buries it a bit.”

Our time is up. The shadows under the magnificent trees have lengthened just slightly and Motion, breezily, sums up Tennyson. “Tennyson is the great poet of penultimacy. That’s what I like him for, personally. Technically I like him because he’s a genius.”