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My Best Teacher - Andrew Motion

A fatherly English teacher with a passion for verse helped the outgoing Poet Laureate through some tough times

A fatherly English teacher with a passion for verse helped the outgoing Poet Laureate through some tough times

Peter Way started teaching me when I was in my first A-level year. He had a military manner that was slightly at odds with his absorption in poetry. When I joined his class I'd heard about his passion but, because I had no absorption in poetry myself at that point, I didn't really pay much attention.

It was in the days before AS-levels, so we had two years before A-levels. We concentrated on the set texts in the second year, and in the first year did a lot of what you might call "off-piste" reading.

Mr Way sat us down in the first English lesson and gave us a poem by Thomas Hardy called "I look into my glass". It starts: "I look into my glassAnd view my wasting skin." It was a slightly odd choice for a group of 16-year-old boys as this was a poem about an old man having an old man's body but not knowing really what to do with a young man's desires, which are burning away inside him. For some reason it went straight into me like a spear.

He wasn't at all ostentatious in the way that he talked about it, but it was clear that it meant something to him. He did this by allowing the human elements of the poem to seem like things you might have recognised people feeling in your own life. Perhaps our fathers felt like that. Perhaps our grandfathers felt like that. And perhaps we would, in time, feel like that.

It didn't work for everybody. In the last line of the poem, when he's talking about the young man's feelings, Hardy refers to "throbbings of noontide". I remember the boy next to me putting his hand up and asking: "What throbbings are we talking about exactly?" But it spoke to me powerfully.

That was the moment at which my life was given to me. I would put it as strongly as that. I hung around afterwards and said that I'd liked the poem very much, and he said there were other anthologies I might look at. Almost immediately, I started writing poems and wanted to write poems in a Hardy-esque style, which I've never stopped wanting to do. That's the tradition I feel I belong in - Hardy, Edward Thomas, Larkin, all of whom were poets that Peter Way encouraged me to read.

And then something else happened. My mum had a bad accident and she eventually died. Mr Way was incredibly nice to me at that time, really supportive and helpful and fatherly. I had a good father, but Peter was fatherly to me. For those reasons, I feel I owe him a great deal. Something fused in my mind between reading poems, writing poems, thinking about poems, and the "elegiacness" of life. This had an important effect on the direction that my poems have taken.

Mr Way just walked straight into my head and turned the lights on. And through that self-validation, all kinds of other things became available to me as well. He stopped me being frightened of things, and as soon as you stop being frightened of things you can do them.

I've never met a writer who doesn't have a mentor like Mr Way. Everyone I've met who's picked up a pen in earnest has been switched on by someone.

I write to him regularly. We chat on the phone and I go and see him - less often than I should, and not as often as I'd like. He's quietly spoken, precise, fastidious and scrupulous.

I'm now sitting nervously waiting to hear what he thinks of my new book, which I've sent to him. I feel fortunate to have had him - I just don't think that I'd have ended up doing this otherwise. Everybody should have a Mr Way.

Andrew Motion appears on a CD of Rupert Brooke's poetry to raise funds for the Armed Forces Memorial Appeal.

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