The Week In Radio

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The Independent Culture
LET'S BE blunt about this: poetry doesn't work on the radio. Well, all right, sometimes it works, but not often. The main thing that distinguishes poetry from prose is its density of utterance - if what the poet is striving for is the best words in the best order, there's no room for the wells and all rights and actuallys that make ordinary speech easy to swallow. You have to concentrate poems; and most of us, most of the time, don't concentrate much on the radio.

All of which helps to explain the awfulness of Sean Street's poems for Radio 4 on National Poetry Day, last Thursday. Street had been commissioned to write a series of poems responding to the subject of Radio 4 - there's modesty for you - to be dropped in at intervals around the day: one about Thought for the Day, one about the Greenwich time signal, one about the Afternoon Play, and so forth.

In one sense, what he came up with was well-adapted to the half-listening audience - a little repetitive, ideas carefully spelled out, so that it was easy to follow at a first hearing. But in keeping it simple he ended up keeping it lazy and dreary: listening to the SOS message, Street heard "all the usual ordinary everyday griefs really, contained by implication between one programme and the next" (what on earth is that "by implication" doing in there?); the Greenwich time signal was described as "stillness, a centre, something Zen". Honed this is not.

But while Street's diction assumed nobody listens too hard, the poems worked on the assumption that radio looms large, drowning out the hurly- burly of the outside world. Several times, he suggested that these familiar radio moments distil meaning from our lives - that Thought for the Day provides "stasis, a rock in the stream" (he obviously isn't getting children ready for school at 7.45); or that the Greenwich pips "enhance our purpose", as opposed to giving us the chance to correct our watches (in any case, he added, "God spits these pips back in our faces every time").

Trying to squeeze meaning out of radio programmes is a mug's game; ask any radio reviewer.

Another approach to presenting poetry was tried on Radio 4 on Sunday, when John Rowe read the two-book version of Wordsworth's The Prelude to the sound of synthesised angel choirs and horses hooves.

Up to a point, the background noise was a useful marker - alerting the listener to a change of scene or mood, or conversely showing how an apparent meander connected to the main drift. But it was too loud and too elaborate, forcing itself on your attention.It wasn't always well thought out, either: a passage about rising before dawn when no birds sang was accompanied by the merry twittering of birds.

Just to show how marvellously the lone voice can work, on Radio 3 later the same evening David Hare performed his monologue on the state of Israel, Via Dolorosa. Off stage, this seemed less a play than a dinner-party anecdote - but one blessed with wit, passion and clarity of thought.

Why do I never get invited to dinner-parties like that?