BOOKS / As the axeman says: let's do it: Glyn Maxwell urges his fellow poets to take up their guitars and appeal to their audiences with the directness of rock music

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IN THE first session of his creative writing course at Boston University in 1987, Derek Walcott asserted to the listening poets: 'You know, the rock stars are doing your work.' Having been among a group of eight also informed that 'no one wants to read your verse' and 'you have to know all of English literature by heart before you can begin', this new statement of our redundancy and worthlessness came as something of a tonic. After all, one of the last things I had done before leaving England for Boston was to complete my first ever Biographical Note (for a New Poets issue of Poetry Review), and I could lay claim at least to having nearly told the hushed millions that, instead of reading poetry, all I did on the dole was play Bob Dylan and Tom Waits records between writing obscure verses. But various cultural inhibitions intervened, and I baulked and said 'I read Stevens and Neruda' because I'd found them on a friend's shelf the day before. I said read: but it rhymed not with deed but with said.

What were those inhibitions? Why did they cause me to say what the Houyhnhnms call 'the thing that is not'. Why have I shed them? Have I? The best I can do to convince myself of it is to state that the imagination, scope and integrity of Bob Dylan's work has been more important to my development, for what it's worth, than any work except Auden's. If listening to Blonde on Blonde is a leisure pastime, so is reading 'The Sea and the Mirror': if reading one is part of my task in life - which I believe - then so is listening to the other.

But, in this age, songwriting and poetry are no closer than sculpture and poetry, or ballet and poetry. The best writers of words for music are, if poets in their own right, accorded the honorary extra title of 'librettists' (Auden, Brecht), applauded as 'skilled' or 'clever' lyricists, like good crackers of puzzles (Sondheim, Hammerstein, Lorenz Hart), or diminished to the status of cultural icons for their times (Porter, Coward, Dylan, Lennon, Marley), whose words and melodies are rendered indistinguishable from their habits of dressing, eating, living and dying.

The best librettists and lyricists do not, usually, write music. They write for people who can. The best poets work with nothing, believing either that their words are themselves music, or that their sentiments or philosophies or eyewitness reports need none. They write for people who agree. The best songwriters take both words and music from the white storm of chaotic sound and transform them into a tiny, coherent piece of work: always memorable, usually simple, often true. But despite the large number of outstanding songs written in this century, it is undeniable that the race of Songwriters is crowded upon a ledge some hundred feet below that of the Poets, at least in the perception of the general public (however indifferent to poetry) and the perception of the poets (however indifferent as poets). How else is it possible for contemporary English poets to look down their noses at the people who wrote 'Imagine', 'Forever Young', 'Universal Soldier' or 'One World', when the minds of those on the English streets are all but void of lines of poetry written since the Great War? The legions of lost schoolchildren who can no longer recite poetry can sing you literally hundreds of songs. Ah, but you should read them on the page, I hear the Poets say. Ah, but you should sing your poems, I answer. And you may have to accept that your technical control of metre, stanza, rhyme and spacing is inferior to the songwriter's work with chording, beat, repetition and narrative.

Take, for instance, these lines from 'Bob Dylan's 115th Dream':

I rapped upon a house with the US flag on display,

I said 'Could you help me out? I got some friends down the way'

The man said 'Get out of here, I'll tear ya limb from limb]'

I said 'You know they refused Jesus too'

He said 'You're not Him'

The spacings on the page that turn these lines into doggerel are periods of time; the words are notes; the black figures are that young, quizzical, broken and patched-up voice of Minnesota's highway kid before he lost his sense of humour round 1970. The whole is as skilfully cracked as Berryman, as clever as Auden, as up-to-the-hour as Les Murray - poets can learn a great deal from songwriters about topicality, let alone about time itself. It is a verse Chaplin film, and I cannot think of a poet who has done that so well.

Still, Bob Dylan is exiled to the far corner of the ring, to use the terms of one of the more stupid cultural debates current (Keats v Dylan) because he is not a poet - because his words 'don't work on the page'. Why does no one in this debate suggest that Keats and Dylan are in the same corner, with Madonna and Michael Jackson, who just write school magazine lines and sing them over good dance tunes, in the other?

But look at the two words: 'poetry' and 'songwriting'. Who cannot hear the velvet hush of the word 'poetry' in contemporary England? It fills little galleries and libraries, but out on the streets it floats on high, a great dirigible, pointed-out, photographed and forgotten, left to land on someone else's field. Against 'poetry', 'songwriting' sounds workmanlike and patched together, like a visual craft that scrapes a living. But we are always given away by the word we choose. 'Poetry' claims both Greek and Latin parentage, and therefore an ancestry with Homer and Virgil at the top of it; 'songwriting', meanwhile, is an Anglo-Saxon compound noun, with roots so deep in the soil of the language that, as with, say, 'moonlight' or 'cloudburst', our sense of its potency has been eroded. Poetry the quasi-mystical nocturnal inspiration, songwriting the day-job. The calling versus the living, the alchemist as against the goldsmith. The contemporary word 'songwriting' seems neither to contain nor hint at mystery, and that's strange, because it suggests that music has less mystery than language. No lover of Beethoven thinks that. Those three major chords simultaneously give hope or courage, fellow-feeling or mere pleasure to millions in the First, Second and Third World?

Rock, of course, is nearly all dross, but beyond, above, behind or below it, works of great beauty and intelligence have been and are being rudely forced. Where is the American poet who can prise the lid off the trashcan like Tom Waits? - And you're full of ragwater and bitters and blue ruin / and you spill out over the side to anyone who'll listen; or focus like David Byrne on the unreal vacuous joy of teenage life in the American malls? - A broken heart / A broken home / Ain't no tears upon your face. Yet American poetry, penned in the universities, is mostly English teachers saying - as Milosz pointed out - 'Something hurt me'.

Here in the land of the Beatles there continues to emerge the first generation of poets to have been significantly and unashamedly affected by the best days of rock music. They are as jealous as their antecedents of the directness and extent of its appeal, not to mention its glamour and lucre, but express their envy not by deriding and ignoring it but by listening and absorbing.

Who knows, if English rock music continues to circle aimlessly, tunelessly or nostalgically into oblivion and the new girls and boys on the poetry block continue to fight for the crucial age group (15-25) given up by English poetry and abandoned by an ambushed education system, perhaps the scales will shift again, and in a couple of decades Emeritus Professor Keith Richards may peer at his new intake of eight eager, guitar-strumming songwriters and growl: 'You know, the poets are doing your work.' As the axeman says, let's do it.

A full version of this essay is published in Poetry Review, with work by Helen Dunmore, William Scammell, Grace Nichols, and Adrian Mitchell. Obtainable from 82 Betterton Street, London WC2H 9BU.