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This report is taken from PN Review 132, Volume 26 Number 4, March - April 2000.

Dealing with Disaster Lawrence Sail

On 12 October last year, exactly a week after the Paddington rail crash, Andrew Motion's poem about the accident, 'Cost of Life', was printed in some, though not all, editions of the Guardian. Two days later, in the same paper, Catherine Bennett compared the poem with McGonagall's 'The Tay Bridge Disaster', commenting that 'neither poet shrinks from describing the impact of the crash', and taking the Laureate to task on more than one count: 'Even supposing that this horribly recent event is proper material for instant poetry, Motion seemed to have nothing in particular to say about it, other than to urge his readers to imagine (had anyone in this country not done so already?) the agony of the victims.' Three days after this, the Observer, the Guardian's Sunday sister, carried a leader headed 'People's Poetry', commending Motion for his poems for the TUC Conference and on the Paddington crash. These were, the leader declared, 'well-judged - and, more importantly, popular. They may strike some in the intelligentsia as mawkish, but the mainstream reader finds them comprehensible and enjoyable.'

There are some interesting issues here, beyond the immediate ones of how any reader might find a poem about a lethal rail crash 'enjoyable', or how anyone could know, five days after a poem's first publication, that it was popular. In the information age we are constantly alerted to disasters both man-made and natural. The extent to which a poet will take them into account in his or ...


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