Crossing The Pond With Poetry
At the Library of Congress, U.S. and British Laureates Put a Notion in Motion

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 11, 2007

The queen's visit is history. So for anyone looking to bathe in continued warm fuzzy feeling between Great Britain and its former colonies, the place to be last night was the Library of Congress's Coolidge Auditorium -- second stop on the first-ever Transatlantic Poet Laureates Tour.

"I know she's been here. I don't think she knows I'm here," said British poet laureate Andrew Motion, referring to the sovereign whose family's weddings, births and other milestones he occasionally is called on to commemorate. This drew a laugh from the perhaps 400 poetry lovers in attendance. Among them was Sir David Manning, Her Majesty's ambassador to the United States, looking remarkably chipper after a stressful week.

The joint reading, Motion said in an interview the day before, came out of a conversation with John Barr, who runs the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation.

One of Motion's initiatives in Britain has been to launch the Poetry Archive, which records poets reading their own work. While discussing ways this effort could be expanded to include more Americans -- last month, the foundation and the archive announced a partnership to that end -- Barr suggested that if Motion were "serious about this sort of transatlantic thing," he should do some readings with the American poet laureate, Donald Hall.

Tall, tieless and dapper in dark suit and white shirt, Motion began his portion of the proceedings by reading three poems by "people who are not me" -- Brits perhaps unknown to American audiences. He began with "Waking With Russell," which the Scottish poet Don Paterson wrote for a young son:

Whatever the difference is, it all began

the day we woke up face-to-face like lovers

and his four-day-old smile dawned on him again . . .

"Part of the reason for doing this," Hall had said in an interview Wednesday, "is that English and American poetry in the '50s and '60s was a sort of continuum," in which poets on both sides of the Atlantic stayed familiar with each other's work. After that, for reasons he doesn't know, "we drew apart."

At 78, Hall has fond memories of personal connections with British poets from time spent in England early in his career. There was a particular London pub, for example -- "the Salisbury, at the end of St. Martins Lane" -- where "a bunch of writers, mostly poets, gathered on Wednesday noons" to hoist pints, talk literature and gossip. Motion's predecessor as laureate, Ted Hughes, was a regular.

Motion, who is 24 years Hall's junior, also has noticed the drawing apart. He told his American audience that he thinks it had something to do with "the way that you guys received modernism and embraced it and the way that we received it and didn't." Academic-oriented poetry is valuable but too limiting, he said, "if it means that you lose sight of the general reader."

The British laureate grew up in a not especially literary household, but was turned on to poetry at around 16 by a beloved teacher. "I have a vivid memory of him, the first time that I was in his classroom, talking to us about a poem by [Thomas] Hardy called 'I Look Into My Glass,' " Motion said. He went on to fall in love with, among others, John Keats and Philip Larkin (whose biographies he would later write) and a less well-known poet named Edward Thomas, who "wrote a hundred and some poems before going off to the First World War and being killed."

He is also prepared to make a case for Bob Dylan as "the greatest artist alive."

As the Iraq war broke out, Motion published a couple of poems expressing his views. One summed up its true causes as "elections, money, empire, oil and Dad." He chose not to read either last night.

Instead he read, among others, a poem called "A Wish List." The list is of things he would have liked to bury with his father, who died a year ago -- and it adds up, Motion said, to a kind of miniature biography.

Make room for these things, too:

The china hare

I lifted from your bedside table years ago

And kept, to prove I loved you, like a child . . .

Your army pack for D-Day,

With its German phrasebook and a map of Normandy.

Last night's appearance, said Librarian of Congress James Billington, was to be "Donald Hall's final public event" as poet laureate in Washington. Looking frail, seated in a chair but reading with his usual forceful clarity, Hall began with a poem more than five decades old:

Love is like sounds, whose last reverberations

Hang on the leaves of strange trees . . .

The lover in question was his high school girlfriend, Hall said, with whom he was soon to break up. But the lines also evoked his best-known work: the wrenching poetry he wrote about the death of his wife and fellow poet, Jane Kenyon, from leukemia in 1995.

He read some of that, too.

One poem was called "Her Garden," and Hall said he'd written it in stanza form -- perhaps there's hope for that transatlantic poetry connection yet -- "because of my extreme love of the poetry of Thomas Hardy."

I let her garden go.

let it go, let it go

How can I watch the

hummingbird

Hover to sip

With its beak's tip

The purple bee balm -- whirring

as we heard

It years ago?

The three-stop Laureates Tour began Monday in Chicago; it will end in London next month. To finish up last night, Hall read a poem called "On Reaching the Age of Two Hundred." It was full of laugh lines, and when the laughing was over, he walked off the stage to prolonged applause.

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