All aboard the 8.22 for an odoriferous poetic experience

Being a human shield is far less harmful than driving innocent rail commuters to their doom
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The Independent Culture
AT FIRST glance, the Government's new policy of putting poets on passenger trains, currently undergoing trials in the North-east, would seem to be a logical solution to two problems. We are suffering from a poetry glut. The trains are full to bursting. What could be more sensible than to dissuade people from travelling at peak periods by the prospect of encountering a poet shouting blank verse in their faces as they try to read a newspaper?

Yet surely even the sub-committee set up by the ministries of Transport and Culture must realise the inherent dangers of this. As anyone who has spent an evening listening to poets performing knows, the experience can be enervating and depressing - particularly if the poets in question are of the jaunty, humorous kind who reflect zanily on their own sex- obsessed pasts. The reason for this is that poets are sad, even by the standards of other writers. The latest issue of MsLexia, the superb new magazine for women writers, quotes an American study which has revealed that 80 per cent of writers suffer from depression compared to a general average of 10 per cent - indeed, two of the 30 writers under scrutiny committed suicide during the course of the survey.

Even allowing for a marginally higher level of mental health outside the US, these statistics should give John Prescott and Chris Smith pause for thought. A particularly heartless politician might argue that an outbreak of self-harm among passengers would lighten the load on the rail companies, but the effect of commuters throwing themselves under trains when they saw a beaming, bearded versifier making his way along the platform, his latest volume under his arm, is unimaginable. Apart from humanitarian concerns, the delays to schedules would be intolerable.

So the problem remains: what to do with the wretched poets who are spreading like a Russian vine through our national life? Once the Poet Laureate used to be a reclusive figure who would produce a couplet every five years; today, he is as gabby and engaged as any Westminster spin doctor, his latest idea being that poetry should be supplied in schools "like the milk" (only those forced to drink cold, sour school milk will appreciate the unwitting aptness of this image). Elsewhere poets are in law firms, in supermarkets, on football clubs' terraces. The unfortunate residents of Ledbury are unable to visit a public loo without having to read what are unpleasantly described as "odoriferous odes" on the walls.

There are those who say that we must put up with these exhibitionistic, emotionally intemperate people as they move among us, spreading despair and depression, but I refuse to believe that, in today's can-do Britain, no solution can be found. Personally, I am working on a briefing document containing three practical solutions to the poetry blight.

Tourist clearance: a poetic taskforce should be deployed to clear the sweaty, unpleasant foreigners currently clogging the heart of our beautiful metropolis. It may be that these people will be unable to appreciate the full horror of verses about "My first time", "Oh, lovely lady on the 22 bus" or "Taking me nan to the rest home" - but there's a grim universal language to poetry that should be enough to drive them away from more crowded areas

Fox substitutes: Poets tend to be smelly. They also run surprisingly fast when pursued by a pack of hounds. A short-term solution to hunting - an incipient electoral nightmare for the Government - would be to train foxhounds to pick up the poetic scent and pursue them across the country. On humanitarian grounds, the kill would not involve evisceration, just the symbolic burning of the poet's latest volume, to the hunting horn's traditional long, quavering note.

Nato strike force: There is a crisis of under-manning in the armed forces. Not all international problems can be solved by dropping millions of bombs on them. Britain's crack Poet Squad would be ready, at a moment's notice, to fly to the world's latest trouble spot on a mission to depress the country's government into submission. The British Council has been doing this for years, but their efforts will need to be upgraded. Instead of flying in, shouting at the local people from a platform, getting drunk on expenses and sleeping with a translator, poets will be given a one- way ticket and told to stay as long as the risk of hostilities may last.

This strategy risks the danger that the poets may be captured and used as human shields, but this is the kind of experience that provides marvellous material for tragic verse of the future. Anyway, it's far less harmful than driving innocent commuters to their doom.

Miles Kington is on holiday

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