Review: There once was a fellow named John...

The way to make people listen to performance poetry, says John Hegley, is to write poems about farting dogs. And it seems to have worked. Even taxi drivers, James Rampton discovers, now recognise the speccy bloke on the back seat.

For John Hegley, poetry is not the new rock'n'roll - it's much more important than that. To prove it, he always carries around a briefcase bulging with slim volumes of verse. Today it happens to contain a complete set of his own books, ready to be photocopied and read out at his new live show.

He fans out the books in the manner of a skilful card-sharp and gets me to pick one at random for him to analyse. He is like a mustard-keen magician eager to show me a new trick.

Hegley does not see poetry as something to be endured during torturous double English lessons at school and then ignored for the rest of your life. He is evangelical about the power of poetry. Putting down his knife and fork in a north London restaurant to concentrate better on his sermonising, he talks with verve about verse. "I buy obscure poetry magazines - I must admit to it - and one of them gave a definition of poetry as a Trojan Horse," he says. "It has a darker, latent power within it that works when you're not expecting it. Poetry has a surface of significance which is a gift to us, but within that gift is something that hits you - wallop - and tears you apart. I want to write that."

Wiry and stubbly, Hegley makes for intense company. He often answers questions with questions, and wanted to know all about my background. To emphasise a point, he leans right forward, so we are almost indulging in an Eskimo kiss. He greets me cheerily as a fellow speccy - "I didn't know you were a glasses-wearer." But, after that, there is no distracting him from preaching his gospel of poetry. "Poetry is the opposite of speaking words which are mundane. It's words that are charged, it's vibrancy, mystery, aliveness, intensity," he grins, "and bollocks."

"Poetry is a natural part of our lives, but for some reason we've become alienated from it. It's in those lovely phrases like 'pleased as punch', or 'wide awake', or 'a lick of paint' - that's beautiful poetry because the brush is like a tongue. Poetry is everybody's. When people say 'here is poetry', it's like saying 'here is air'. It sounds like I'm a Messianic poetry person," he continues, stating the obvious, "but for me it's completely natural to take poetry and try to make it popular and populist."

The 44-year-old Hegley is honest enough to admit that, like the majority of us, "I hardly understand any poetry, but I still buy poetry books all the time. They're precious to me, even if I only get one phrase from them. I was reading Ted Hughes the other day and came across this phrase - 'the night snowed stars'. That was worth the 15 previous minutes of not understanding very much. When a poet says that, you think 'wow'."

Despite the claims of the much-hyped - and extremely well-remunerated - newcomer, Murray Lachlan Young, Hegley is still the most successful poet on the comedy circuit. He puts that down to the fact that his poems have something to say.

"OK, so it's not Heaney," he concedes, "but there is some weight in my poetry. Comedy is an important part of it, but it's not cheaply won. It's not purely for comedic effect. It's always better if you can say something that is funny and also meaningful."

It was not so easy when he started out. In the early 1980s, poetry suffered from a big image problem, and Hegley had to overcome the prejudices of audiences who equated verse with being force-fed incomprehensible set- text Chaucer. "When I first played at the meat-eating Comedy Store, I was food for the lions," he recalls. "People might have thought, 'Oh no, poems!' but you soon learn tricks about how to present something unpalatable. If you're introduced as a poet, you're in trouble from the start. You have to say 'Here's a poem about a dog that keeps on farting.' That way, you get over the first hurdle and get them to listen a bit. To appeal to a comedy audience, you mustn't go too much into the clouds, but, hey, everybody's capable of flying, man, so don't forget that, either. People are knowingly undersold. Between heaven and earth lies the answer."

Many of Hegley's clever, comic poems, delivered with a compelling sneer, point up the difficulty of communication. "That's what being human is all about," he observes. "We're social beings, and the fact that we don't face up to that causes a lot of problems."

Hegley is hopeful that his proselytising for poetry is having some effect. He is leading a creative writing course at Luton University in the spring, and his verse is even taught in schools now. "People are waking up to poetry," he claims. "Taxi-drivers will now say to me, 'Give us a poem, then, mate.' The fact that 60,000 books somewhere in the world are by me is amazing. When I do a performance, it's just lovely to hear people laugh, and then see them take a book away with them - hopefully having paid for it. People are still into written words. They don't need poetry to be rock'n'roll. It's in books - what's wrong with books? We've got to make books wantable things."

As we part, he inscribes a copy of his collection Love Cuts for me in the same spare way Christopher Logue once signed a book for him: "For James Rampton from John Hegley." I ask him if he feels he is a missionary for poetry. "What is poetry?" he replies. "It's having a new light shed upon you by words. That sounds very mission-like to me. The best moments are when someone says they've gone away from one of my shows actually feeling better." He pauses before adding with masterly timing: "It's only ever happened once."

John Hegley plays the Bloomsbury Theatre, London, WC1 (0171 388 8822) 21-5 & 27-31 January.

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