Lyrical Ballads by unlikely lads

200 years ago Wordsworth and Coleridge revolutionised poetry. Now what? asks William Scammell
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Two hundred years ago, in September 1798, a couple of unknowns published a book of poems, in the hope of raising a bit of ready cash. It was ushered into the world not by a smart London publisher but by a small regional one in Bristol. And it was anonymous. So apart from a few close friends nobody knew who had written it for, as Coleridge said to Wordsworth: "You're unknown and my name stinks." So Lyrical Ballads slid quietly into a few bookshops and revolutionised poetry for the next 100 years and more.

One revolution was announced in its title, which fuses together two distinct genres, the lyric, which usually implies love and something song-like in the delivery, and the ballad, forerunner of a million novels, which emphatically tells a story. Another was spelt out post facto in the famous Preface Wordsworth wrote when the little book went into a second edition: it was "an experiment", written in "a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation", in order to ascertain what sort of pleasure, and what "quantity of pleasure ... a Poet may rationally endeavour to impart".

It wanted to do away with poetic diction, and likewise with the reactionary politics underlying notions of decorum, dictating which subjects were and were not fit for any self-respecting poet to write about. The two conspirators wanted a poetry that would "interest mankind permanently", one which would explore "the essential passions of the heart ... the fluxes and refluxes of the mind when agitated by the great and simple affections of our nature". Note the careful mix of words, scientific and humanist, in Wordsworth's two-cultures approach.

In short, they wanted to deregulate the muse, freeing up poetry from the stranglehold of official culture and politics, just as Milton and the puritans wanted to deregulate theology, wresting God out of the hands of the priesthood and giving him back to the people. This so alarmed certain Enlightenment savants wedded to the status quo that they hurriedly invented terms of abuse to pelt such upstarts with, such as the "Lake School of Poets", a patent nonsense, or the "Cockney School", in which Keats might be smothered at birth, or the "Satanic School", dreamt up in order to drum the wicked Lord Byron out of polite society.

Long before the French began thinking of their poets as "damned" and poets themselves began wearing the label proudly like a badge, permanently at odds with a repressive and philistine bourgeoisie, William and Sam tuned into democracy, dropped out of the professions, and set up that rural Bohemia which has been with us ever since, where truth and beauty might be reconciled - the forerunner of various utopias, from Lawrence's Rananim to Kerouac's life-as-road-movie and the non serviam or rebellious kick of rock 'n' roll.

If that seems a long way from "emotion recollected in tranquillity", so is poetry from the levers of power (whatever Shelley said about "the unacknowledged legislators of mankind") and Grasmere from London. Yet connections were laid down, moral forces exerted. Those connections were renewed in a conference held at Grasmere last week, "Of Poets and Poetry Today", to celebrate the bicentenary of Lyrical Ballads, still fresh as the day it was born, and to discuss what's happening in English poetry now. Seamus Heaney (once a special advisor to Irish president Mary Robinson - times have changed a little) headed an all-star cast of poets and critics gathered to pay homage to their illustrious forbears and to hear what today's young Turks are doing with their inheritance.

Heaney was joined by Douglas Dunn and Andrew Motion to open proceedings on Tuesday evening with a reading, attended by about 250 people. Tony Harrison, also billed to appear, was in Italy with a film crew. On an action-packed Wednesday, in the sybaritic surroundings of a luxury hotel above Windermere, Seamus delivered the keynote address on Wordsworth, a characteristic mixture of insight, humour and charm. (As someone remarked the night before, he could read from the telephone directory and shift a couple of hundred copies before supper.)

Yeats soon came into view, together with many other parallels and touchstones. Wm and STC were implicitly saying: "English poets, learn your trade." They cast a warm eye on life, not a cold one. They were exemplary in their susceptibility: poetry was a way of knowing, one which had to be of present and of future use. Wordsworth was trying to get his poetic feet in rhythm with his actual feet. He was committed yet spontaneous, singing the song of a man who had come through. He had "terrific gumption", standing solid with the wretched of the earth but also breathing out cheerfulness in every pore. He was like a marriage between Peter Reading and Charles Causley, or Brecht and Rilke, or - wait for it - Jesus and Joyce (peroration here, with the closest Heaney ever gets to a wicked grin, which is a crinkly smile), uniting in himself hurt at injustice, stoic fortitude, and vast pleasure in the powers of nature and the human mind. Milosz came up too - "What good is poetry that does not serve nations and peoples?" - along with Lowell's Life Studies, Hughes's Birthday Letters, and Brodsky's "The real enemy is the vulgarity of the human heart".

Sitting ovation, followed by a discussion chaired by Melvyn Bragg. Douglas Dunn livened things up with assent and dissent. The panel was joined by Fleur Adcock, Sean O'Brien, and Robert Woof, indefatigable director of the Wordsworth Trust, who has set up the latest exhibition in the museum, Towards Tintern Abbey. Some took in Wordsworth with their mother's milk, it appeared, some had Wordsworth thrust upon them. All agreed that he and Coleridge were still a beacon, a refuge in a stormy post modern world, and a continuing call to arms.

Later still Simon Armitage, Jo Shapcott, W N Herbert, Neil Corcoran and myself were empanelled to discuss O'Brien's new book, The Deregulated Muse (Bloodaxe, pounds l0.95) and the state of modern verse. What with workshops, residencies, readings, broadcasts, multiculturalism and lyric resources available to every tongue, the feeling was that we are in a pretty lively and wonderful state. All this self-congratulation sounded a mite complacent to me. So did the countervailing notion that Englishness (as opposed to Irishness, Scottishness, Indianness, etc) is a shameful or at least a problematic condition, one which we should all try and do something about, or atone for. Maybe this is why he travesties Ted Hughes, homing almost exclusively on the laureate poems (which is rather like judging Wordsworth by the Excursion). But the discussion rambled, as discussions will, and we never really got our teeth into the issues O'Brien cogently raises in his book. Is, or ought, poetry to be political? What does "political", in this context, mean? Is the canon still relevant or has it been put on hold, along with all those dead white males? Are we multicultural and feminist in name but not in printed and published fact? Where do academics and journalists fit in? What about popular and performance poetry? Are editors and reviewers still as snobbish or as yobbish as they ever were, trashing the genuinely new just as they trashed Lyrical Ballads?

Simon Armitage had a telling and funny story to throw at this one. His mum and dad, he said, read reviews of his books in the papers, then ring him up to ask whether the reviews were good or bad. Armitage shone, too, in the final reading, where his brand of wit, sympathy and imagination had the audience drinking him in every word of the way.

One thing is certain: there's no lack of poems about, as forthcoming anthologies from Armitage and O'Brien will demonstrate. Will the stuff last, though? Are there great men and women among us, or is it all this month's froth and hype? Whichever, we had first sight at the conference of the Arts Council's new Policy for Poetry document, which shows that someone is taking us seriously. It proposes 50 awards a year for writers, at pounds 15,000 a throw. Just think what William and Sam would have made of that - a "policy", no less, and a living wage, as though poets, too, might come in out of their much-loved cold. Weave a circle round him thrice and be sure to put the cheque in the post. Some reviewer of left or right is certain to have something to say about that.

As Wordsworth wrote: "The reader cannot be too often reminded that Poetry is passion: it is the history or science or feelings."