Come Together in Poetry

American, British Poets Laureate Make History This Week

Posted May 7, 2007 at 4:09pm

An accent and the Atlantic might divide them, but this week for the first time in history the American and British poets laureate — Donald Hall and Andrew Motion — are coming together for a series of joint readings.

Hall and Motion were scheduled to appear Monday night at the Art Institute of Chicago and will be in Washington, D.C., on Thursday evening at the Library of Congress’ Coolidge Auditorium. A third and final reading will take place next month at London’s St. Giles-in-the-Fields Church.

The series — the brainchild of the U.S.-based Poetry Foundation but co-sponsored by the Library and the Poetry Society in the United Kingdom — is part of the foundation’s recently launched “Poetry

Across the Atlantic” initiative, which aims to reintroduce the poetries of the United States and the United Kingdom to each other.

“We are deeply ignorant of what you guys are up to over there and vice versa,” says Motion, who will read both his own poems and those of other contemporary British poets, such as Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy, while he is stateside. (Likewise, in England, Hall will read the work of American poets in addition to his own poems.)

In the 1950s and 1960s, when poets such as Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes dominated the scene, there was more interaction between the two countries’ poets, Hall says. Over time, that “current of people going back and forth” has lapsed, Hall asserts. “I am typical of the situation I am speaking of. … The Poetry Foundation was aware of this and set up this encounter between me and the real poet laureate.”

The real poet laureate? Well, perhaps “original poet laureate” would be more accurate, Hall qualifies.

After all, England has had an official poet for nearly 400 years. In 1617 King James I created the office of “poet” for Ben Jonson with John Dryden becoming the first poet laureate in 1670. Meanwhile, the United States has had a poet laureate only since 1937, when Joseph Auslander was appointed the first Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, a post that today is officially known as the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.

Given the British poet laureate’s monarchical origins, an unwritten expectation exists that he will produce poems for all sorts of royal occasions — from the late Queen Mother’s 100th birthday to Princess Margaret’s death. (In a rather unorthodox move, Motion once penned a rap poem for Prince William’s 21st birthday.)

Unlike the United States, where the poet laureate can be appointed by the Librarian of Congress for up to two one-year terms, the British laureate, who is appointed by the monarch on advice of the prime minister, has historically served for life. “It’s been officially changed beginning with my tenure,” says Motion, who assumed the post in 1999. “I thought 10 years was long enough to make it seem significant.” (Hall has opted to serve only one term as laureate. “I’m feeling my age considerably. I’m weak in the knees, my balance isn’t good. … I’m old,” he says.)

Then there’s the question of money. America’s poets laureate receive a $35,000-per-year stipend and a $5,000 travel allowance. Fittingly, the British payment is slightly more eccentric. In addition to an annual sum of 5,000 pounds, the United Kingdom’s poet in chief is gifted with a one-time allotment of a “butt of sack,” a rather medieval term for the equivalent of 650 bottles of sherry. (Motion, who says his apartment can’t possibly hold that much sherry, has told the Sherry Institute of Spain, which provides the libations, that he’s deferring the payment. “What they are doing is waiting until I give them the signal and they’ll send it over and we’ll have a big party,” he says.)

At first glance, Hall and Motion appear to cut remarkably different figures. The 54-year-old Motion, a strikingly suave man whose colorful personal life has served as fodder for the British tabloids, lives in a small flat in London. In contrast, the more gruffly spoken Hall, 78, has for the past 30-plus years resided on the same 140-acre Eagle Pond Farm in Wilmot, N.H., where his grandparents once lived. Still, there are links between their lives.

Like Motion, Hall, who notes that his son (who also happens to be named Andrew) is about the same age as Motion, attended Oxford University. After earning a bachelor’s in literature in 1953, Hall spent a year living and writing in a 15th-century priory in Essex County’s Thaxted, which he remembers as “a small, quiet village with six pubs.” In 1959, he returned to the village to spend another year — this time embarking on a driving tour around England to interview people about the sculptor Henry Moore, whom he was writing a book about. It was then that Hall, who served as poetry editor of the Paris Review, also traveled to Rome to conduct the publication’s interview with poet Ezra Pound.

Like Hall, Motion, who now runs the creative writing program at Royal Holloway, University of London, has a connection to the country. And Motion, who grew up on the border between Essex and Suffolk counties near the area the artist John Constable immortalized in his landscapes, said that rural memories influence his poetry. (Motion also spends plenty of time in the United States, given that his girlfriend lives in Brooklyn, he says.)

“I think they both write a poetry that is accessible,” says the Poetry Foundation’s president, John Barr. “It’s serious poetry written about everyday American experience or British experience.”

In addition to churning out a prolific number of poetry collections, both poets have produced their share of notable prose work. Motion is the author of well-received biographies on poetic luminaries such as Larkin and John Keats. And a memoir of Motion’s childhood will be published this fall in the United States. Hall, the winner of the Caldecott Medal for the classic children’s story “Ox-Cart Man,” penned a memoir of his marriage to his second wife, the late poet Jane Kenyon.

Where these poets differed somewhat is in their assessments of their respective countries’ literary appreciation.

“Over here … we have a sense of our literary tradition which at least manifests itself more vitally in the buying of books than it does with you,” Motion says, asserting that British newspapers also devote more space to book reviews.

Hall, who says he is unfamiliar with the current British poetry scene (prior to these readings, neither poet had ever met), believes “there’s been more activity in poetry, more poetry readings in the United States … and they are more remunerative. … There is a kind of poetry crowd in America that is large and turns out for readings. It is commonplace I would get 500 people at a reading.”

Looking ahead, the Poetry Foundation wants to continue to strengthen ties between the world’s two most prominent English-speaking nations. As part of the “Poetry Across the Atlantic” initiative, the foundation has budgeted $250,000 for a transatlantic audio poetry archive. A small portion of this money will go to the U.K.-based online Poetry Archive, a project started by Motion, so that it can add recordings of more than 130 American poets, selected by Hall, to its site.

Hall and Motion will read a selection of poems beginning at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Library of Congress’ Coolidge Auditorium. The reading is free and open to the public.