Sir Andrew Motion, former poet laureate, talks to journalist Georgina Godwin about his native UK as a 'country of Shakespeare', and explains how the Bard has influenced his work. The text below is an edited transcript of the podcast.
Shakespeare is acknowledged as one of Britain’s greatest poets. How does he, as your literary ancestor, inform your work?
While I am not a Shakespeare expert, his work has probably had the most fundamental influence on me of all the writers that I’ve read. Although I came to literature pretty late, in my mid- to late teens, I read him very early in my writing life.
At school, we were required to do Julius Caesar in 1966. It was very badly taught, and the magic of the play didn't really exert itself on me. Later on, though, when I did my A-levels, I studied Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida. In their different ways, I found them going into me like spears, with an absorbing power that entered my heart. I more or less memorised the plays at that age, and feel that they're still in me.
These were very formative, fundamental experiences – very basic elements of literature were laid down in me, on which, in varying ways, I've built on since.
How has Shakespeare’s work been relevant to you, in terms of those big themes of love and war, for example?
I'm anxious about making it sound like the notion of relevance is a governing thing in literature. Literature certainly is relevant, but it’s also free of relevances and can be approached in different ways as well.
It's absolutely true that we find all kinds of parallels between the circumstances that Shakespeare describes and the lives that we recognise as being part of our own existence, and those which recur throughout history.
The way that Shakespeare writes about archetypes and allows us to think about archetypal situations through brilliantly crystalline, dramatised, actualised presentations of particular scenes is incredible.
Do the themes of Shakespeare's work transcend language? Do we need to know the language of Shakespeare to understand his work, or do his themes run so deeply that, perhaps, we don’t?
The meaning of poetry, whoever it's written by, if it's any good, does depend a great deal on what we understand its meaning to be. It can simply be about the sound that it makes, rather than purely on the dictionary definition, as opposed to the words when we see them written down on a page.
I've always been devoutly of the opinion that poetry – dramatic, lyric or narrative – is, in some absolutely essential way, an acoustic form. It's a breath form. Shakespeare does manage to reveal that in the most astonishing way.
Almost anybody going to see, and hear a Shakespeare play now will come across passages that are knotty, and full of words that are no longer in use. But, despite the difficulties, there’s not going to be anybody sitting in the theatre thinking, 'I don't get that.' The appeal is extraordinarily visceral – it’s to do with the ways in which this business of sound is organised.
The default setting of the plays is iambic pentameter, but Shakespeare doesn’t exactly play fast and loose with that idea. He modulates the sound – that short-long, short-long, short-long – in all kinds of subtle ways. There are all kinds of variations which can be played on the default setting of the line, so that the sound hovers, as our English speech characteristically does, around the idea of that sound.
Shakespeare is one of Britain's biggest cultural exports. Is he still a useful, soft power tool for this country?
That's not language I would usually use, but I do think that our sense of ourselves as a country does depend very much on our poetic inheritance, of which he is the founding father. We think of ourselves as the country of Shakespeare, in the same way that we think of ourselves as living in a country which has a beautiful landscape. The irony is that England these days, as a whole, is rather suspicious of its poets, and they might have some justification for feeling slightly marginalised by the stream of culture, in terms of sales and the attention paid to them.
That doesn't stop British people feeling that there are at least some good poets knocking around, and that the best of them is him.
You launched the Poetry Archive a few years ago. What is it and who is using it?
The archive exists to bring together recordings by poets of their own work, or the work of other poets.
The earliest recordings are from the late 1880s, of Tennyson and Browning, so there’s a historic dimension to the site. The content also covers material written right up until now. There’s a lot of editorial material on there which we hope will liberate them and make the poems accessible, in an intelligent way, to anybody who listens.
The audience of this website is now significant – we have something like 250,000 people using it every month to listen to almost two million pages of poetry. I think about the visceral appeal that these things can make at the acoustic level.
Andrew Motion was part of a delegation of UK writers who attended the Guadalajara International Book Fair in Mexico from 28 November to 6 December 2015, curated by the British Council for the UK Mexico Year of Cultural Exchange.
Find out about the British Council's Shakespeare Lives programme of events and activities celebrating Shakespeare’s work on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of his death in 2016.