Boyd Tonkin: A force that will attract the most poetry-phobic fan

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The Independent Culture

Mariza's championing of Pessoa suggests a simple response to a perennial problem. How do you lead a doggedly resistant public to enjoy more modern poetry? One answer might be: return to where the art began, set it to music, and sing it. Composers in the classical tradition never stopped transmuting poems into songs and larger-scale forms, as - to take an example for today - anyone who has heard Wilfred Owen's words tolling through Britten's War Requiem will know. Jazz, as well, does its fair share for the live survival of verse. This month's London Jazz Festival will include a recital of settings of 1930s poetry by the excellent Norma Winstone.

Of course, the forms of some recent verse will defy all music, but a lot - especially given the cheerfully eclectic mood of British poetry now - invites it. Besides, you might well look at some of Bob Dylan's knottier lyrics on the page and ask how anyone could ever sing them. (Sceptics might be tempted to reply that no one ever did.)

But the biggest untapped audience for modern poetry surely lies within the universe of pop fans, and here a challenge looms. Why find a tune to someone else's words when every self-respecting singer-songwriter proudly rolls their own? Now, a lyric is not the same animal as a poem composed expressly for the page. Gruesome pitfalls of pretension lie in wait for any critic who tries to erase the difference entirely. Yet it can hardly be denied the pop-lyric tradition in Britain and Ireland runs on a sort of parallel track to the vein of modern poetry that connects Hardy to Heaney.

From the age of McCartney and Lennon, Ray Davies and Nick Drake through the works of Jarvis Cocker, Shane MacGowan and Morrissey, the songwriters have shadowed the poets, often in striking a tone of quietly ecstatic sadness or nostalgia that you might imagine native to these islands were it not that - for instance - Pessoa himself so clearly shares it. Maybe it's a damp, Atlantic thing. At any rate, the parallels abound.

There's no danker name in 20th-century verse than Philip Larkin; and no hotter name in 21st-century pop than Pete Doherty. Yet listen to the single ("Albion") from the Babyshambles album, Down in Albion, and you hear the Larkinesque cadences flowing mournfully like November rainwater down a gutter in Hull: "Gin in teacups/ And leaves on the lawn/ Violence in bus stops/ And the pale thin girl with eyes forlorn... ".

There will always be precious few McCartneys, Morrisseys or Dohertys in popular music. There will always be interesting voices belonging to open-minded singers in search of stronger words. While they wait for composers to bridge the gap between page and stage, the marketplace could do more to celebrate the close kinship between (some) pop and (some) poetry. Those balkanised "books and music" stores might make a start on Monday by planting a few piles of Larkin or Blake alongside the Babyshambles CDs. Poets always profit from the extra limelight because, down here in Albion, rhyme seldom pays.