The Cinder Path: Andrew Motion’s Shift from Royal to Public

‘I want my writing to be as clear as water. No ornate language; very few obvious tricks. I want readers to be able to see all the way down through its surfaces into the swamp. I want them to feel they’re in a world they thought they knew, but which turns out to be stranger, more charged, more disturbed than they realized.’ (Andrew Motion)

With Andrew Motion, poetry comes as ‘spontaneously’ as it does with William Wordsworth, with no boulders of thoughts blocking the way, with no hindrances creating any trouble and with no obstacles of choosing between subjects to write on. Appointed as Poet Laureate in May 1999, Motion has indeed gained much appreciation for his ‘royal poems’, but this does not limit his vistas of discovery to the few selected topics like the wedding of Prince Edward, the 100th birthday of the Queen Mother or the death of any of the Royal personages. Poetry, for him, is something more than merely trying one’s pen on these topics; it is the ‘supreme art form’, something like a ‘hotline to our deeper feelings’.

If we quickly glance at Motion’s career as a Poet Laureate and take in consideration his ideas of accepting Laureateship as a job, we can fully grasp his views about poetry in particular and how, he thought, poetry worked. Being unaware of the nature of job assigned to him as a Poet Laureate, Motion ‘felt from the start that it was more like a call to arms.’ He believed from the very beginning that ‘the laureateship needed to be changed from a courtier-like role into something more appropriate to modern times, which would be of benefit to poetry.’ Simple language, colloquial themes, appealing subjects and above all, a sense of ‘personal interest’, was all what he believed poetry must contain. But since poetry of a poet Laureate was something that seemed to lack almost all of the above mentioned elements because of the predetermined requirements of the task, Motion was at first bewildered before finally coming to terms with his job. ‘I have to admit’, says Motion about his royal poems, ‘that no other writing that I’ve undertaken, of any kind, has been so difficult.’

This difficulty, seemingly, stemmed from the detachment and distance he felt from the Royal family or any of their events. Though each member of the Royal family is supposed to be of supreme interest to the general public, but not many would like to waste time on reading (or understanding) poems about their activities. Motion was aware of this fact and to a certain degree, afraid of it too. ‘How was I to connect to them’, questioned Motion, ‘knowing only what news paper tells me?’ This obstacle, we might assume, could have easily limited his vision and could have narrowed down his approach to creativity, but we see no evidence of it in his poems. He didn’t allow Laureateship to effect his creative powers, instead, he rose up quite high from his role as a poet laureate, to a poet sensitive enough to the issues of greater concern and he dealt with those issues in such intimate ways that made his readers believe he was writing for them all. ‘My underlying feeling’, said Motion, ‘is that poetry ought to be part of general life rather than being ghettoized.’ He also believed that ‘primitive poetry’ was ‘a fundamental requirement of the human spirit.’

These views apparently seem to be a little out-of-place for a poet laureate who is burdened with the responsibility of creating royal poetry about royal people and royal issues. But Motion was dedicated to his poetic vision since the very beginning and even more freely, after giving up laureateship. For him, the ‘primitive pleasures’ mattered a lot and he asserted that if we, ‘ignore or suppress our primitive pleasures, we’re denying something essential to ourselves.’ He also asserted that: ‘In this respect, and remembering Keats’s great remark that poetry had ‘better not come at all’ if it ‘comes not as easily as leaves to a tree’, I would say that poetry is as natural and necessary as breathing.’ He enjoyed his laureateship, no doubt, but leaving laureateship did him no harm. ‘I’m glad I did it’, said Motion, ‘and I’m glad I’m giving it up-especially since I mean to continue working for poetry.’

In The Cinder Path, Motion’s famous collection after relinquishing laureateship, we encounter a variety of poems including lyrics, elegies and love poems that deal more closely with feelings and emotions experienced by ordinary humans. The themes are so identifiable with the happenings of our own lives that we get carried away with the flow, experiencing each emotion with the poet’s personas. He is simple and Lucid in his expression, with an occasional and unstoppable urge to create obscurity. His conversational style and clarity of expression make his poems interesting and since it’s a fact that ‘complexity mars understanding’, Motion’s readers face almost no difficulty in grasping the poet’s views knitted in the clear web of his poems.

The title poem, ‘The Cinder Path’, is one of the most significant poems of the collection. The Cinder Path is also a title of a Landscape painted by Spencer Gore, which is an alienated, lonely and ashy path and of course, a much detested and dreaded path as imagined from the length of the Red-Carpet. The poem can be taken as a direct hint to Motion’s experience of walking on the ordinary path as an ordinary poet and yet keeping his own voice true and sharp. The short, ten lined poem, encompasses the whole of his experience of creating poetry as an ex-laureate poet. ‘I know what it means’, the poem begins, ‘ to choose the cinder path’, making it clear that the poet is well aware of what might come his way after he has given up his laureateship. ‘You’, in the very next line probably refers to the ordinary people for whom this shift might seem to be nothing less than a ‘death’ (of fame, of readership, of appreciation) but the persona prefers to take ‘pains with the world’ despite the fact that the ‘signpost ahead’ bears ‘no inscription’ to lead him further in his life’s journey. The ending lines are replete with strength, perseverance and courage on the part of the poet/persona as he is also ‘withstanding’ like the strong ‘elm tree’ and is bestowed with the strength to bear any hardships (criticism, jealousy etc) waiting for him like the ‘oily green flame’ (green being the symbol of either jealousy or more positively, nourishment/life/prosperity etc).

The poem reminds us of Robert Frost’s masterpiece, ‘The Road Not Taken’. Both poems deal with the idea of choosing a ‘path’ and the possible consequences of their decisions. Motion seems to be quite firm on the reliability of his choice but Frost feels ‘sorry’ as he ‘could not travel both’. We find him sighing by the end as he believes that his not choosing the ‘other path’ has ‘made all the difference”

With the shift from the Royal to the Public issues, we also notice the shift in the diction and style in The Cinder Path. The poems are no longer slaves of a particular ‘aim’ that the poet is trying to accomplish. The language here turns demotic and spontaneous. The thematic and stylistic concerns jump from the general to the personal and the poems now ‘hook into’ the ‘deepest and most urgent feelings’ that flow like water and erupt as ‘the mighty fountain’ like the one Coleridge makes us visualize in Kubla Khan. Despite the fact that this water does go through the ‘caverns measureless to man’ (deep feelings of humans, in Motion’s case) but unlike in Kubla Khan, it does not fall ‘down to a sunless sea’, instead, it comes out to us and brings with it the most personal experiences of the poet in their most original form. This experience is exhilarating for the poet as well as his readers. ‘Pretty much the day I stopped being Laureate’, says Motion, ‘the poems that had been few and far between came back to me, like birds in the evening resting in a tree’

Nostalgia for the past, childhood recollections, memories of ‘places’ and feelings of ‘loss’ and ‘desolation’ are recurrent in his poems in this collection. The poet ‘recollects’ the past events and visualizes the memories as brilliantly as Wordsworth does, with a very obvious difference of the dominance of the feeling of loss in Motion as opposed to Wordsworth’s recollections that make his heart so elated that it ‘dances with the daffodils.’ ‘The Break’ is one such poem that drags him back to his past only to realize that things do ‘change’ as he can ‘no longer cast a shadow’ at the place where he once went crabbing like a boy, reminding us of the famous assertion that Wordsworth makes in Tintern Abbey while visiting the place years after he first visited it, ‘…I can not paint/ what then I was.’ Just as Wordsworth’s feelings at that moment bring him ‘life and food/ for future years’, Motion’s nostalgia drags him to a temporary despair throughout the poem until the end point when ‘the lighthouse lifts/ a trumpet to its lips again’, leaving the readers with a hope similar to that of Wordsworth’s ‘food’ for the coming years. The choice of words speaks for itself as Motion talks about ‘change’ in a very interesting way, with ‘Nothing changes; nothing changes’ at first and later realizing that, ‘It’s all a lie, it’s all a lie.’

It is quite ironic to note that after having experienced laureateship, what Motion suggested his successor to do was, ‘to write royal poems only when a major event in the life of the royal family connects by common consent with the significant life of the country. And not otherwise’, but when it comes to choosing subjects for his ordinary poems, he wouldn’t hesitate in writing about trivial issues like visiting a place after a long time (‘The Break’), observing his brother at night while he is sleep walking (‘Meeting at Night’), taking a break with his brother while their father is dying in the hospital (‘Passing on’), choosing a path (‘Cinder Path’) or even something as trivial as a goodnight kiss (‘A Good Night Kiss’). Ironical as it may sound as we observe this contrast, but it surely is the poet’s privilege of remembering and fixing a moment in time, of ordering the poetic universe as he sees fit no matter how trivial the subject of the poem may be.

Another very simple poem, ‘The Stone’, can also be helpful in observing Motion’s shift from the Royal to the ordinary topics. It seems quite uncanny that a poet writing about the events in the lives of the Royal personages would stoop too low as in to start writing about stones or any memories related to them. But since, freedom of expression is what a poet possesses as a natural gift, Motion also feels free to let his thoughts flow like water. We observe that he is blessed with a quality of allowing conversation to evolve into lyricism without any transitional awkwardness. The ordinary, apparently insignificant eight lines of this poem reveal something deeper than the mere talk about an ordinary stone. It is interesting to note how Motion plays with his readers’ nerves by talking about the ‘look’ in the companion’s eyes without giving the slightest hint into what sort of a look it actually was. We get tickled by the half revealed, half concealed situation of the poem. Another interesting thing to note is the link between the ‘look’ and the ‘stone’ as the readers immediately start pondering upon the significance of this very stone , which, when taken away, has left such difficult ‘look’ on the face of the companion of the persona of the poem that he can remember nothing else like ‘the day,/ the sun, the wind, the beach,/ but not the look in your eye.’ The look which is not explained further whether it is of anger, disgust, affection or complain. He knows well how this single, undefined ‘look’ would work for him and he enjoys the incomplete gesture and makes it sing. To be simple and clear might be Motion’s motto in poetry, but a poet is a poet. Why to reveal each fact? Motion very rarely attempts to bring in some flavor of obscurity in his otherwise simple, sweet and sour poetry.

‘Passing On’ is another very moving and involving poem that flows like water in a stream. The conversational style in this poem and in many others about his parent’s death engages us and we are made aware of the fragility of these two lives and a rather uncomplicated narrative of love and loss binding Motion and his parents. In this poem, the persona (most realistically Motion himself) addresses his dead father, narrating the events, happenings, feelings and emotions he experienced just a few minutes before his father’s death. Unlike Sylivia’s brutal handling of the same theme of her father’s departure and its effects on her in her poem ‘Daddy’, Motion here deals with the same issue in a very calm way. The melancholy, the sadness and the grief of the poem is quite understandable. The long lines of the poem show abundance of emotions and Motion’s inability to hide them from his readers. He, along with his brother, is at the pub ‘ordering’ large gins when the mobile phone rings to announce the news to his father’s departure. The expression is very simple, the feelings very genuine and the readers can ‘feel’ what he might have felt at that particular moment. ‘I put my drink down, then thought again and finished it.’

The poem reminds us of the royal poem Motion wrote on the death of the Queen Mother. The ‘flower-lit coffin’ which is set ‘in vaulted public space’ is ready for the Queen’s dead body which is ‘set free from self, from sense, from history’. Similarly, in ‘Passing On’, the worldly tensions of his father are over, ‘Your face was wiped entirely clean-/and so, with your particular worries solved.’ The style shifts from royal to ordinary here, the language turns from grand to colloquial and the words flow more fluidly than the carefully selected ones in the royal poem. This is because of the sense of detachment that he experienced while writing about the Queen (which he mentions in the lines, ‘we who never knew you/ but/all half suspect we knew you) turns into complete intimacy when he talks about his father with his brother in Passing On, ‘saying how easy you were/ to love, but how difficult always to satisfy and relax/ how impossible to talk to, in fact, how expert with silence.’

‘My Masterpiece’, an extremely accomplished poem resembling a painting, can be interpreted keeping in mind Motion’s priorities in poetry. The poet, like a gallery keeper, directs the reader’s gaze to several details of the painting behind the central figure of a female with the ‘unknowable frown’. This ‘Madonna in a Window’ is presented like a royal figure who has the awe to ‘outwit scholars’ and ‘bewitch the public/ for the rest of time.’ But this is not the only concern of the poet. He wants us to focus on his ‘real triumph’ which ‘consists in the view/ extending behind her’ that include ‘the blue-green hills’, the ‘miller’, the ‘poacher-boy’ etc. We notice that all of these things and people are quite ordinary and common . It can be assumed here that Motion felt that his real ‘triumph’ was not just the ‘royal’ poetry, rather it was something ‘extended’ behind it. (i.e. his personal poems about everyday life).

We can see that the shift from the royal subjects to the public concerns is something for which he didn’t have to do any efforts as he is a poet fully aware of the minutest feelings an ordinary human can experience. He writes in a flow, without any fear or hindrance, believing in public service unlike many other poets. He is of the view that ‘poetry matters and that poetry needs people to say that it matters.’