Holy Island - Andrew Motion
The poem is available on Andrew Motion’s website www.uktouring.org.uk/andrewmotion/ and
so I won’t infringe his copyright here by reproducing it. I think it’s good (in the sense of both
useful and right) to share contemporary poetry with students written by poets
who are not set texts or set authors. Apart from being a part of their cultural
education, it is a good preparation for looking at unseen poems in any exam.
The first question I would pose, having both read this
aloud and looked at it on age or screen is: what is the poem’s impact? What are
your first reactions?
I would encourage the widest discussion here. If there
are students who tend not to participate in open classroom situations, find a
way of eliciting their views, e.g. anonymous jottings on postcards or post-its;
message boards; guided group-work.
What follows is a thought-journey of my own, reflecting
the questions that came to my mind. I've added it here because it might give
some starting points when discussing the poem with pupils. The thing to stress
is that there are no clear-cut answers, just lots of intriguing questions – to
which we can, nevertheless, offer intelligent and reasoned responses.
Pupils might like to compile a list of questions or
‘wonderings’ (‘I wonder if…’) in a similar vein. (You could even send them in: firstname.lastname@example.org)
There is opportunity – or necessity - here to explore
ambiguity and open-endedness; to accept that the poet does not make explicit
some aspects of the piece while being very explicit about others. This is the
prerogative of any writer, given that he or she does not write for a syllabus
but for his or her own reasons. For sure, poets place their writing in the
public arena and wish to be read but that does not mean they need to Explain
Everything. If that were the case, they might as well write a prose narrative
or description: one way to take the poetry out of a poem!
Ambiguity lies in the anonymity of ‘you’. We may guess at
this but do not know whether it is a son or daughter, wife, lover or friend.
How much does it matter? What is
important is the significance of the relationship which comes through in verse
three, where it is quietly, implicitly, conveyed.
Again, what does the first line suggest about time and
place? Clearly the writer is not behind the other person as he writes, so is
this a reference to a memory, a photograph or even a daydream?
Elsewhere the poet is very precise and revealing: ‘How
many years are there left …Thirty, if I live to the age of my father’. Likewise
the descriptions of the scene before them which is both detailed and personal
(‘definitely still evolving’).
So far we have assumed that the persona is the poet’s
own. Why do we feel this to be the case?
Further questions to which the answers can only be
suppositions: what/why is everything moving fast? How can the live ravens be
settling on the pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels? (Is the writer gazing at a copy of the
manuscript which brings this memory so vividly back to him?)
‘I cannot explain why I have left it as late as
this.’ I cannot explain why I find this
a powerful and moving line; perhaps it has something to do with age. Perhaps
there are things, by their very nature, which young readers will not fully
understand; if this is so, they need to know that this is okay. There’s no
condescension here; there are things which we are too old to understand.
A final thought on the structure of the poem. Although
there is no rhyme and no obvious metrical pattern, the poem is carefully
divided into lines and verses and the lines have a similar length and strength.
In my reading, I hear (or feel) four strong beats to a line and this gives an
underlying unity to the poem. But do others hear it in the same way?