Altogether now... breathe

A COUPLE of years ago, I was looking for a poem of Auden's which I couldn't lay my hands on, so I went to Charing Cross Road to look for it. Foyle's was the first shop I went into, and was genuinely shocked to find the shelves bare of his books. I became angry: this great English poet unrepresented in what was once an international byword for bookshops. "Do you realise," I said, tersely, to the assistant, "that there is not a single copy of any book by W H Auden in stock?" "Yes," he replied, "and it's your fault." It was shortly after the release of Four Weddings and a Funeral. I knew that there had been a bit of a rush on "Funeral Blues", so memorably spoken by John Hannah in the film, but had no idea that Auden had literally reached the best-seller lists. It was a striking reminder of how poetry, the Cinderella of the written word, with sales in single figures, can, spoken aloud, be the most popular of all literary genres.

In the film the poem in question was given a dramatic context, and in so doing Richard Curtis (in one of the many masterstrokes of that screenplay) provided exactly what was needed at that moment: a crystallisation and an intensification of the emotion, a sort of mask which enabled Matthew, Hannah's character, hitherto charming, witty and affectionate, to reveal himself more deeply, to speak for grievers everywhere: "He was my North, my South, my East, my West,/My working week and my Sunday best." The tone was perfectly judged, and the poem has become a part of the mental landscape. Its success does seem to be part of a genuine revival of interest in poetry.

There is of course, poetry and poetry: it can as much be the medium for intense riddling, quibbling metaphysical speculation, as for the expression of straightforward emotion, as much meditation as song, evocation as graffito. There is plenty of justification for my mother's acerbic view of poetry as the longest way of saying the least; equally it can distil experience into a few devastating phrases.

Like most art, poetry comes into its own at moments of crisis, whether national or personal, positive or negative, but it is very much an everyday art, too: there is something seemingly so natural to humankind in the speaking of verse that a very different kind of attention is accorded it. When I recently revived Micheal MacLiammir's The Importance of Being Oscar, I had every confidence in the extracts from the plays of course, and the dialogues, the letters, the novel; I worried about the poems. Would people be prepared to sit and listen to the delicate and charming verse of his early years, or submit to the hammering rhythms and crude rhymes of The Ballad of Reading Gaol? In the event, it was the poetry that formed the bedrock of the evening.

A great stillness descended as the audience received the simple dancing metre of "To L.L." with its euphonious, lulling assonances: "I remember we used to meet/By an ivied seat./And you warbled each pretty word/With the air of a bird." The attention only intensified with the pounding beat of The Ballad. "In Reading Gaol by Reading Town/There is a Pit of shame,/And in it there lies a wretched man/Eaten by teeth of flame."

Audiences love to be read to, anyway, but here was something else, a communication at a more intuitive level, a form of spell. There was a curious sense of somehow coming home, allied to, perhaps derived from, a feeling of the audience breathing together, acquiring a sort of collective diaphragm. It seems that there is something fundamentally rooted in human experience in our response to rhythm and rhyme: a memory first of the womb, then of the nursery. There is a kind of ache for it. Time is the element in which poetry exists, in both the musical and the metaphysical sense, and the restitution of rhythm - even if only for the duration of the poem is profoundly satisfying, briefly suspending the circumambient chaos. Rhyme has its own satisfaction, the creation of order. Then there is melody; Lou Harrison's definition of music ("it's a Song and a Dance") is just as true of poetry, with the added factor of meaning.

Some poetry, I suppose, was never destined to be read aloud, or at least not in public; but it is the collective rhythmic act which seems to me to be the source of its popularity. In these straitened and unreliable times, more and more actors will I believe take to speaking poetry to audiences. Whether poets will be happy about this I doubt, but it is an essential form of communication which may help to secure the survival of language. It is also, of course, very cheap.