In "Sailing to Italy" (1997), Andrew Motion's poetic journal of his Keats-inspired voyage from London to Naples, two passages in particular illustrate his poetic practice. Weighing anchor on the Portuguese coast, he remarks, "The first thing is simply to look around". A little later, he conjures a ghostly encounter with Keats: "I guess. I imagine. I suppose. Possibly. Probably. Perhaps." Poetry itself records the tension between those ways of conceptualisation, of course. But Motion's poetry is unusually even-handed in engaging with their overlap.
Many poems in his new collection, The Cinder Path, are distinctly shaped by his mastery of the various prose genres: memoir, biography, fiction. Some engage intimately with other lives, blending a poet's imagination with a biographer's tact. In the five sonnets commemorating the first world war veteran Harry Patch, the poet is the speaker, but he beautifully folds in little turns of phrase that must be characteristic of the man ("catch a packet", "tout suite", "no puff in the lungs").
Motion has perfected the art of excavating his own poems from others' prose. For example, Patch records in his memoir how, when asked by a schoolmaster to define a curve, he wrote that it was "a straight line with a bend in it", and took a rap over the knuckles for his wit. Motion borrows the idea, with equal wit, to introduce another Patch anecdote, about scrumping: "A curve is a straight line caught bending / and this one runs under the kitchen window / where the bright eyes of your mum and dad / might flash any minute and find you down / on all fours, stomach hard to the ground, / slinking along a furrow between the potatoes / and dead set on a prospect of rich pickings ..."
The single sentence of each 14-line unit marvellously captures the way an old man might tell his story, running on a little, getting slightly breathless, but always keeping the deeper narrative connection. To have ventriloquised this would have been a failure of tact. Motion's skill is to evoke the voice without appropriation.
With figures further back in time, it's a different proposition, and the dramatic monologue perfectly fits the epistolary poem "The Life of William Cowper", depicting a failed ballooning expedition: "The process, I believe, depends for its success upon niceties / as make it very precarious." It's rather magical that the convoluted 18th-century style can support a real poem, with none of the archness of pastiche. Motion is able to enter a scene so authentically that description almost is the voice.
Perhaps surprisingly, the quintessentially English poet shares some imaginative territory with an Irish poet 13 years his senior, Seamus Heaney. Both favour a scrupulous, grounded tread towards a well-planned epiphany. Both declare their imaginative expenses. Under the tutelage of a common ancestor, Wordsworth, both find endless nourishment in childhood.
In "The Grave of Rupert Brooke", "the teenaged Andrew sets off on a testing pilgrimage / in 80 degrees with too little water, no hats, // and worn-out flip-flops to cover the whole / universe of trackless and razor-sharp lava / around Trebuki Bay ..." The adult speaker recalls the grave with a lively, delicate sense of its incongruity, but what transfixes the boy's imagination is an army of red ants: "Could those balls of dirt passing between / some of their many hands really be the last // remains of the poet?" Later, in Delphi, he lies awake, awed by "the canopy of stars and shooting stars", and, at first, is "on tenterhooks" to hear an oracular voice. Finally, lulled by more modest hopes of daylight and homecoming, the youth and the mature poet seem to unite in an awareness that the mundane epiphanies "would be good enough for me".
The Cinder Path concludes with elegies for the poet's father, a theme foreshadowed, with good novelistic instinct, in the ominous "Diagnosis", placed around midway through the collection. There is bafflement as well as intimacy in these encounters, as the narrative shifts from third person to direct apostrophe, and the dying man moves irrecoverably out of reach: "your radio still cranking out Today; your dying word / which, as you always meant, I never heard" ("The Wish List").
Incompletion haunts the collection: a lorry, "its cab gone and the green metal container / open like the first sentence in a long story" ("Migration"); a pile "still in mid-air" as workmen abandon their attempt to build a new pier ("From the Journal of a Disappointed Man"). There are ghosts - the son's vision of himself in his dead father's face, the father, vividly imagined as he struggles with a petrol lawnmower, finally, in a fierce pun, "cutting clean through me and vanishing for good". The title poem partners an enigmatic painting by Spencer Gore, reproduced on the cover, with Catherine Cookson's novel of the same name, in which the troubled hero escapes his emotional entanglements to fight in the first world war. Etymologically, at least, "the cinder path" suggests "the ashground", the wooded private refuge described in Motion's memoir, In the Blood. There are numerous literary echoes in this collection, most obviously in the titles ("Bright Star", "The Ancient Mariner", "The Mower", and so on).
The generally sombre mood lifts for moments of pleasure - paintings, vacations, sex - and sly flashes of humour. Motion has been a tirelessly capable and positive laureate. This collection marks his recovery of "negative capability". It stops to look around, and whispers to itself, "Possibly. Probably. Perhaps."