The rebel rhymer

Poets. They're all the same: impoverished, pallid, unworldly, thin. Their poems don't rhyme and their feet smell. Not this one (though we are unable to comment on his feet). Felix Dennis, the well-known media mogul, is fighting a carefully metred battle to return poetry to its - eheu! - former glory. To further his cause, he invited John Walsh to attend his pleasure at his 650-acre Warwickshire garret...
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The Independent Culture

It's 8pm in the Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon and on this hallowed, bardic turf something poetical is under way. But Shakespeare, were he to look in, would have been puzzled by the nature of the entertainment. On stage, a barrel-chested roughneck in a vivid lounge-lizard waistcoat, a Savile Row tramp with wild, grey-to-silver hair and matching beard, is gazing at a volume of poetry through heavy, spot-welder spectacles and declaiming into a microphone a poem called "Better Man". His delivery is theatrical to the point of melodrama: he grates, he snarls, he whispers, he... fake-hesitates, like Donald Wolfit, before letting the next line rasp along:

You were the better with lords and ladies,

I was the better at pillaging Troy;

You were the better at kissing the babies

I was the better at search and destroy.

But who was the better man, old boy?

Who was the better man?

Could you take your eyes off this hirsute avenger, you'd notice three things rarely found at British poetry readings: a) a wall-mounted screen, on which the lines of the verse appear, half a beat after they've been grated by the guy on stage, b) a table groaning with wine bottles which, on closer inspection, turn out to be very expensive premier cru claret and some excellent Burgundy both red (Gevrey-Chambertin) and white (Chassagne-Montrachet); c) unseen speakers are plinky-plonking a Kurt Weill street ballad as background music to this tale of masculine rivalry.

After four stanzas of unexplained but seething regret, you can hear the audience hold its breath, as if they really care who the hell was the superior human being in this crabby male relationship: "You were the better man, my friend," the shaggy poet finally concedes. "You were the better man". During the applause, he looks broken, exhausted by the poem's passion, its unexplained personal battlefield. Nobody has a clue which of the figures in the poem - the cautious one, or the buccaneer - might have the moral upper hand or why; but they like a touch of rhythmic emoting with their Chateau Talbot 1982.

This is the face of 21st-century poetry, Felix Dennis style. No other poet in the land goes in for this kind of hi-tech histrionics; no other poet would dream of being so uncool. But then, no other poet could afford to indulge his obsessions like this. For Dennis is, unlike most poets, fabulously rich and famous. He's been famous for 33 years, since he was one of the three defendants in the Oz trial of 1971, accused of outraging public decency. He is, by press computations, the 64th richest man in the UK with a personal fortune of £500m. His magazine empire, Dennis Publishing, is transatlantically bestselling.

It is verse, however, that has stolen his soul away (or given it back to him), ever since a near-fatal illness - following nine months of post-crack cold turkey - left him with a spooky obsession to write for hours every day. The resulting poetry is rhythmic and reverberative (especially when delivered in his floor-shaking baritone) and phenomenally old-fashioned - not quite school-of-Tennyson or Swinburne, perhaps, but certainly school-of-Masefield or Chesterton, with its emphasis on rhyme, metre, and instant intelligibility. He borrows ancient ballads and litanies, and mangles old nursery rhymes and fairy tales with satirical intent. He uses Biblical constructions like "thee" and "thou" and "Think you?"; he is the first poet since John Keats to write, unironically, about "poesy". Greybeard constructions such as "Mammon's mire" spring from his multi-millionaire lips. He is fond of using capitals for emphasis - one poem gives us the Hall of Hating, the Walls of Malice, the Worm of Grief and the Stone of Musing...

Dennis himself blithely admits he paid Hutchinson (part of the Random House conglomerate) to bring out his first volume, A Glass Half Full, in 2002 - an arrangement that's generally dismissed by the literary world as "vanity publishing". But Dennis refused to stop with publication. He mounted poetry readings attended by indulgent friends and interested hacks, where he survived any potential embarrassment by hamming up his trademark bardic rasp and daring anyone to find it funny. Undaunted by the lack of reviews in the national press, he embarked on a nationwide tour of readings to a public who had no idea who he was. Mick Jagger, an old friend, told him to give the tour a name; it became the Did I Mention the Free Wine? tour, and, while shamelessly bribing people to attend, it shifted 10,000 copies of his debut collection - a colossal figure in the thin stream of poetry sales. Word spread. The South Bank Show devoted an hour-long documentary to the rich man who woke up one day with poetry in his head.

Tomorrow is the launch of Dennis's second poetry collection, Lone Wolf. There will be a glittery launch at the In and Out Club in St James's Square, London, followed by a nationwide reading tour. From the Glee Club in Birmingham to the Rawhide Comedy Club in Liverpool (taking in Oxford, Cardiff and Glasgow on the way) he will bring the growly Parnassian message to thunderstruck audiences all over the country, ferried from venue to shining venue by private helicopter. In one of Martin Amis's short stories, the writer imagines a world where rock stars played to tiny pub audiences while poets rode in executive jets and recited to audiences of 200,000. Now Felix Dennis has arrived to confound that fantasy by making it real.

Meeting the great man involves a drive up from London to Warwickshire with Louis, his phenomenally cool chief chauffeur, in a Bentley Turbo. It's one of Felix's seven cars. (He has quelled an understandable desire to put a sticker in the back window saying "One of my other cars is a Rolls Phantom", which it is.) You reach his 650-acre country estate of Dorsington, 10 miles or so from Stratford, and look around, nosily, for signs of wealth, of rich man's folly. They aren't hard to find. Soon you're inspecting his magnificent folly, Highfield, a hectically over-the-top shrine to the spirit of Robert Louis Stevenson, an ornate swimming-pool-cum-sauna-cum-bar'n'gym'n'cinema crashout-relaxation zone with an hourglass pool, an ornate aquarium, a library, jukebox and lots of sculptures (Stevenson himself stands in the doorway, carved in Lincolnshire limewood).

There isn't anything metal in it, not a nail, not a screw - the biggest barn (as its owner tells you proudly) entirely made of oak frames to be built in the UK for 300 years. It has a tragic history: the original structure was burnt to the ground just three weeks before its completion date in March 1997. The fire raged for 14 hours. Any other man would have detected the work of Providence and given up, but Dennis does not bow to fate. He met a local farmer who told him: "Get on with it and rebuild the blighter better next time." So he did. It took a year. Another 700 oak trees went into its construction, even down to the wooden nails, joists and flanges that hold the thing together.

The great man is located 100 yards away in the old manor house which is his centre of operations. Felix is in the garden, presiding over an al fresco lunch with a bottle of Chablis rosé. He is thinner than I remember, but his hair is more straggly and his beard longer and more unkempt than you'd expect from a business mogul worth £500m. It takes a few minutes before you register whom he most resembles: Saddam Hussein, just after they found him in the bunker and began sticking torches down his throat.

Saddam is, in fact, the subject of the longest poem in the next collection, an extraordinary attempt to think inside the mind of a tyrant. Has his poetry become more politically engagé?

"Can I ask you what that means, please?" he asks, jutting his chin. I told him. "There's a poem about the horrible lies told by all politicians. Politicians have always been the same. They're just people who are trying to get your vote. I suppose the Romans were the same. Although the Greeks weren't interested in the vote so much - they were interested in talking to each other. The Romans knew that if you got the crowd on your side, you were all right and it didn't matter what the rest of the bastards in the senate thought. So we've the Romans to blame for all the posturing."

What has he discovered about himself as a poet? "I don't sit down, as I used to, and say, 'I'm going to write a villanelle'. The professionals I talk to, they say 'No. no, you must only write when you want to write'. And I say, but I always want to write! I've learned the craft. I've done the look-at-me stuff. After the first 400 poems, the form stops dictating the content." He still lays aside four hours of his busy working day just for writing verse. Does it still come as easy?. "No, but then I'm not as easily pleased. My fingers hit just as many keys as they used to, but a much larger percentage goes straight into the bin." His editor is the poet and Faber author, Simon Rae. "Yes, he's still with me. He's taken every thee, thine and thou out of the collection, and removed 40 buts. When he takes them out, he writes in the margin, "stop throat-clearing".

He has received, he says, thousands of letters from readers who've found his stuff amusing, moving or inspiring. Among the more glamorous of the fans is Tom Wolfe, the novelist-dandy, who came to a poetry reading. "This guy in the white suit says, 'What kind of literary criticism have you had of this book?', and I said, 'I've had a lot of very nice write-ups, but I haven't had a single review - apart from one in The Wall Street Journal, by our old friend Michael Horovitz [the British poet], saying 'This man is a philistine and until he stops rhyming, he's going to remain a philistine'. So no, I said, there hasn't been much criticism. Wolfe said, 'There won't be much here either, Felix, but take no notice. I think this is terrific stuff. I read it and I laugh out loud, and some of it I find quite moving, and I think quite a lot of other people like it, so don't take any notice at all - don't worry about it'." Dennis subsides, overcome by this Wolfian rant. "So it was very helpful to me".

Had he received no reviews at all in the UK? "Well," he says guardedly. "It depends what you mean by a review."

"I mean, a serious review..."

"Ah-hah!" shouts Dennis, as if I'd fallen into an elephant trap. "Do I hear, John, the tiny sound of a person who works for a newspaper who believes only newspapers can carry serious reviews? Is that right? What is not serious about somebody who bothers to write several paragraphs on an internet site saying what they think of a book? Are they not serious literary reviews?"

"No they're not," I say. "These people tend to have an extremely limited frame of reference and a very limited vocabulary of criticism."

"That's very interesting," says Dennis with a sneer. "So a guy who writes, 'Felix Dennis writes of love and wine and sex in a way I haven't seen in many years. I read his poems with the same excitement that I read Richard Brautigan in college many years ago' - you're saying he has no frame of reference?"

"Not about poetry, obviously," I say. "As I recall, Richard Brautigan wrote very little poetry, and what there is is pretty wispy and twee and sentimental, and nothing like your writing at all."

"NAOH," says Dennis, "that's brutal and not fair."

How was it, I wondered, that such a shaggy, ex-crackhead titan of the counterculture should turn out to be this old-fashioned backward-looking traditionalist when it comes to poetry. "Look," he says, "If we had a selection of poetry by people we both like, and it contained works by, say, Frost and Browning and Tennyson, would they be called backward-looking? I don't see how you can call people that. Everything we do comes from the past."

"Yes," I say, "but people decided around the 1920s that you didn't any longer have to pat poetry into formal shapes, that you needed looser forms to embody the chaos of the 20th century. That novels didn't have to be written on the lines of Henry James any more."

"You're wrong to call it 'backward-looking'. The whole world spends its entire time looking backwards, because otherwise it would have nothing to stand on, no language, no cultural grip, nothing. You've got to look backward or you don't know where you are."

Despite being ignored by the poetry-critical fraternity, Dennis has - a little sneakily - made overtures in their direction. He is sponsoring this year's Forward Poetry Prize for Best First Collection. Why bother, since his work is so out of step with mainstream poetry? "It's important that people are encouraged to write, that encouragement goes on. I'm prepared to accept that I don't know everything [about poetry], but not much harm can come from sponsoring this prize - although one day I'd certainly consider sponsoring a prize to encourage intelligible poetry".

He and Andrew Motion are involved in a scheme to record the voices of every living poet and keep them in an archive, which would also feature historical recordings of Tennyson and Oscar Wilde doing their stuff. It's a fine idea, though the two men are not, I fear, destined to be mutual admirers. "To be honest, I read him with some embarrassment. I know his standing in the literary world is about ten-plus while I'm about minus-nine, but I don't particularly like Andy's poetry. It has no passion for me. He has an excellent use of descriptive language, but it's like a Martian who's learned all the words and hasn't any passion to put in his poetry." He laughs his bitter laugh. "He'd probably say there's too much passion in mine". As if.

So we sit and fence and argue into the afternoon and eat sandwiches and king prawns and drink Chateau Palmer 1985. If you're very good, Felix will show you his Japanese garden, with its little Torah bridge and its koi carp, and dilate on his passion for trees. The most exuberant dendrophile since Rousseau, he talks about the characteristics of different trees as if describing real people. "The only thing I'll leave to the world when I die," he says dramatically, "apart from a few books of poetry, will be trees. I'm planting, or if I die will cause to be planted, the biggest broadleaf forest in England. We're now up to 400,000 trees. I've just another ten-and-a-half-thousand acres to fill up."

The other things he'll leave behind are the extraordinary bronze statues in his Garden of Heroes, a mile or so from his house. They're over-lifesize casts of Muhammad Ali (raising his arms in triumph), Stephen Hawking (in his wheelchair, looking as if there's nothing, literally no body, inside his tweed jacket), Darwin leaping triumphantly astride a Galapagos tortoise, Bob Dylan playing guitar to Woody Guthrie at the end of a hospital bed, even the late Alistair Cooke broadcasting from America in the week of Bobby Kennedy's assassination. Near the entrance to the garden is a triptych - Three Graces-style - of the three Oz trial defendants dressed as schoolgirls, with Richard Neville's hockey stick saucily emerging from between Dennis's legs like a rampant phallus. In the Garden of Heroes, it's an iconic moment in history, to stand alongside Einstein's mid-breakfast flash insight into the General Theory of Relativity.

He grows philosophical. Fear of dying keeps him awake at night, "Because there is no appeal. There's no way out of this system, and I'm very cross about it. I know I'm only 57, but you have to consider the condition of the vessel."

We consider it in silence.

"People think of you as massively self-confident-" I begin. "Self-centred, you mean," he interrupts. "A self-centred, egomaniacal figure. Everything for the first 50 years of my life was about me. If it didn't make me money, then I wasn't interested. I think it was because I had nothing, and I was determined that I wouldn't end up with nothing, But of course, it should have stopped once I got my first million. It should have packed up. It should have ceased."

On impulse I ask, why did you never have children? "I adore children. I've loads and loads of god-children. But I didn't have any of my own because they would have interfered with ME. That's an appalling thing to discover when you're 50 years old. And this poetry has been the catalyst for my beginning to feel for other people. I'm incapable of having a serious conversation with anyone about emotional things. Or of having rows of any kind. But for the first time I've started putting myself in other people's shoes, people with different outlooks from mine - whether it's Saddam Hussein, or an 85-year-old retired English judge."

Just before we part company, we talk about Dennis Publishing. Felix habitually moans about the misery of looking at balance sheets on a lovely day when he could be sitting by the carp pond, borne on the viewless wings of poesy (ahem), but when you get him on the subject of business, he is all animation and excitement. The Week is doing well in America. He's just pinched the editor of Rolling Stone to edit his rock magazine Blender. He bought the Erotic Review ("Just to save it. Rowan Pelling did a number on my finance director. Just stood there and spoke sensibly and batted her eyelashes.") and has now sold it. He's launched Inside Edge, a magazine, according to the cover line, "For Gamblers Who Win" (presumably gamblers who lose can't afford the £3.99 cover price). And now he's launching Test Drive, a new mag for groovy young twentysomethings looking for guidance about buying both a car and a lifestyle. And when talking about the magazine business, he says an extraordinary thing.

"There's been a huge gap in the market because What Car? has been around since the Ark, and never changes. It's a very successful magazine, I'm very envious of it, but where's the relevance to people in their twenties and thirties? They're afraid to change it. There's been new car mags and lad mags, the market's completely redefined itself - and yet What Car? just sits there like the Cutty Sark, the finest, wooden-hulled three-masted ship ever built, OK but," he jabs a forefinger, in a wake-up gesture, "but people have steam trains now. And pretty soon they're going to be running on oil. And though the magazine is excellent, it's also... old !" And Felix Dennis, the most shameless cultural antiquarian in the modern world, went off into one of his floor-shaking laughs.

'Lone Wolf' (Hutchinson) is published tomorrow, £8.99; 'A Glass Half Full' (Hutchinson), £6.99