"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
For more information about the books of Nicholas Murray
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Regular Motions: Choosing the Poet Laureate

Yes, thank you, Marrakech was fine (and I may come back to that) but my post-holiday mail included a request from the Poetry Society, of which I am a member, to express a view about a successor to Andrew Motion as Poet Laureate, a blanket request to all members. I think I will be proposing Private Eye's E.J.Thribb whose evocative minimalism has always entertained me. But, before we forget about Andrew, I recall that in September 1999 I made the following observation in my book on Andrew Marvell: "Marvell saw the function of the artist at a time of revolutionary change as being...a witness to the true inner nature of the conflict...Two centuries later another English poet, Matthew Arnold, would argue that a society in the process of rapid change needed at least a few voices prepared to step back from the immediate call to "lend a hand at uprooting certain definite evils". Nicholas Murray: World Enough and Time: The Life of Andrew Marvell (September, 1999), p38

A few months later in The Guardian Andrew Motion made the following observation:

"Living through a time of revolutionary change, Marvell does not respond as a propagandist for one side or the other, but as someone bearing witness to interior realities...Matthew Arnold...also reminds us of Marvellian virtues when he tells us that during periods of turbulence and rapid change, artists should avoid the temptation to "lend a hand at uprooting certain definite evils". Andrew Motion, The Guardian, 11 March 2000.

Now I know there will be crude, unsophisticated minds who will call this plagiarism but I prefer to see it as a tribute and I am honoured.

And, of course, the new Laureate - seriously - should be female.

8 comments:

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William said...

Well, I think it's jolly clever of the Poet Laureate to think the same things as you and to use the same ideas in the same order and with many of the same words. Such a psychic ability must lighten his work load no end.

Andrew K said...

Though I think a fatal error occured somewhere along the linguistic line, Nicholas. In the first instance you write,

Two centuries later another English poet, Matthew Arnold, would argue that a society in the process of rapid change needed at least a few voices prepared to step back from the immediate call to "lend a hand at uprooting certain definite evils".

In the second Guardian instance is written

Matthew Arnold...also reminds us of Marvellian virtues when he tells us that during periods of turbulence and rapid change, artists should AVOID the temptation to "lend a hand at uprooting certain definite evils".

The second is the exact opposite significance to the first. If accurately quoted, Motion advocates a position of intellectual abdication, which might seem to be exactly what is wished for in the offical State writer, particularly when the State is as is now(and ever was, and ideally ever shall be, Amen).

Andrew K said...

Although I think I may have got that utterly wrong, glossing over "call"; ie seeing it as Matthew Arnold, would argue that a society in the process of rapid change needed at least a few voices prepared to step back from the immediate, (call) to "lend a hand at uprooting certain definite evils".
I assumed, in my little knowledge of Arnold, that he was, like Aldous Huxley, of the social responsibility, wise intellectual aristocracy, with a felt duty to help guide society. To be honest, I'm a bit confused still. Being a witness to the inner nature of the conflict surely means by its very nature intuiting the truth, and by natural extension helping uproot falseness. If Motion means that in the absence of sufficient knowledge the artist should refrain from leaping on possibly dubious bandwagons, then I understand.

Nicholas Murray said...

Andrew, I just managed to lose a long and eloquent reply to your points which is infuriating but the gist of it was that Arnold's view that sometimes the writer/artist/intellectual helps best by thinking independently (like John Gray??) about what is happening rather than taking up an activist position does not mean advocating indifference or quietism or sitting on the fence. We can exert influence in different ways, some by sitting on the runway at Stansted, others by writing poems.

Andrew K said...

I know the experience Nicholas- extremely annoying, though there's maybe a dash of solace, where we get to analogise about how ultimately all vanishes into the Void- or not depending on inclination.

I think I have the gist now, though wistfully regretting the vanished eloquence.

Nicholas Murray said...

The poet Ivor Gurney, who didn't think much of Rupert Brooke, wrote in 1915: "Great poets, great creators are not much influenced by immediate events; those must sink in to the very foundations and be absorbed. Rupert Brooke soaked it in quickly and gave it out with as great ease." Is this relevant?

Andrew K said...

I think, in accord I imagine with the Gurney quote, if one has the correct kind of overview, the events come sharply and quite easily into focus. For example, the dumbing down of culture and where it leads all clear if one realises that consumerism is nihilism in fancy dress.
If one lacks the correct overview, the overview one forms from the disparate, chaotic shards will be superficial, even if insanely complex! and false; as I presume is implied of Brooke- hence his misguided trust in the sanity of WW1.
I think the simplest way to not be dragged into the maelstrom of the everyday details with something like world politics, is to find out what actually are the core ideas and philosophy of its central protagonists. Reading the thoughts of Machiavelli is infinitely more insightful than reading a million newspapers.
But even then, if we are not centres of truth ourselves, not much can be expected.