The poet Sir Andrew Motion has found himself galvanized by personal and professional change. In 2009, he ended a decade’s term as Britain’s poet l aureate, his father had recently died and he married his third wife soon after. This year, he is publishing a new collection of poems and has just released Silver, a sequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Sir Andrew sets the action a generation later as Jim Hawkins’s son and Long John Silver’s daughter return to the island.
Did you read Treasure Island as a boy?
I should have read it but my family were not readers. My father looked at me one day, baffled at how odd it was to have a child who wound up being poet laureate, and said he reckoned he had read half a book in his life. So, I didn’t read it as a child because I didn’t read anything, but when I went to university I had a girlfriend who took my education in hand. She made me read the Narnia books and Beatrix Potter and Treasure Island.
What did you think?
I can remember thinking how amazingly good it was, as good as Conrad and Hardy, Stevenson’s contemporaries. He’s a genius, and he’s writing about very big things. Colonialism, father-son relations.
I couldn’t help noticing, he does leave a lot of doors open. We are told on the first page all the silver is left on the island; they take the jewels and the gold. Towards the end, Long John Silver escapes. He takes quite a lot of money with him and just vamooses. And right at the end, as the Hispaniola sails away, they leave behind three really wicked pirates. What would it be like to be left on a sand dune in the middle of the Bermuda triangle? That’s a nightmare fate.
Stevenson was really interested in sequels. He wrote a sequel to Kidnapped. I like to think if he had lived longer he would have gone back to Treasure Island.
In a letter, he gives a list of all the books in which he found bits of his plot, [Daniel] Dafoe, Captain [Frederick] Marryat, boys’ story writers of the time and he says, “Plagiarism was never carried so far.” It’s a mishmash and his genius was to make it his own. If you put it like that, all the cheekiness and the presumption of writing a sequel rather disappears. It kills the idea that to write a sequel is somehow pathetic, because it’s dependent. We live in an era when reference, quoting, mashing are par for the course.
How do you make sure it’s your own and not just a piece of fan fiction?
You make sure it is properly independent. And in my case, the way you do that is by moving it forward a whole generation.
These kids, who are 18, think they live in a better world, they are children of light, of the Enlightenment, old piratical ways don’t exist any more. They think they can just pop over to the island and get the silver and come back and everything will be hunky dory. Of course, when they get there they discover appalling things have happened on the island, because the bad old world is still going there.
Does postmodern borrowing suggest we suffer a poverty of stories in our day?
I don’t think it is a poverty. If it’s an ingenious way of registering the connectedness of things and of making that manifest – in a way that doesn’t compromise the story being exciting and involving – how all texts show their own incompleteness, their artificiality. Stevenson himself does that in Treasure Island, he leaves all these ends dangling.
Whatever postmodernism is, I think this is a way of defining it, saying: You think this is a slice of life? You are quite wrong. You think this a complete story? You are quite wrong.
Your version of subsequent events is violent. Is this intended for young readers?
It is dedicated to a 14-year-old, the child of a friend, who tells me he liked it.
I did not really bother much with that thought when writing. First of all, I wanted to write an exciting story, and second a story about colonialism, and about the weird combination of competiveness and guilt that sons have with their fathers, and which Stevenson was very interested in. It was the secret engine of a lot of Stevenson’s fiction, as it is for me.
You are about to publish a new collection. How did being laureate affect your poetry?
It’s a very valuable thing to have because you can do extraordinary things for poetry, but you are on the receiving end of a continual stream of well-meant requests to write about this and that. It is asking you to write poems with a very conscious, deliberate bit of your mind whereas we know perfectly well that good poems only get written by the side of your mind that doesn’t know what is going on. And that bit of my mind sort of got dried up. I had almost stopped writing poems for the last two or three years of my laureate.
The day I stood down, they came back: I have done more poems in the last three years then in the last 10. It was not the only reason; everything else in my life changed at the same time, my father died, I got married again. I moved house. A huge wave of energy came rushing back into my life. You can light your imagination by allowing new things to happen to you.
Sometimes your poems rhyme.…
Actually, none of the new ones do. I got fed up with rhyme. I have wanted my poems to be moving and thoughtful and observant, but I have also wanted them to be beautiful, partly as a way of hammering home the other things. For a long time I thought rhyme was integral to that. But when I came back to poetry this time, I found I had lost all appetite for rhyme.
That throws a greater weight on making it rhythmically interesting. I have always wanted to write poems in as simple language as I can manage but that are still totally absorbing to the reader. I have said this before: I want to write poems that look like a glass of water but turn out to be gin.
One is more likely to guess the water is actually gin if they rhyme.…
Something like that.