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.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
The comedian, 42, made the controversial comment following the athlete’s sentencing to five years for the culpable homicide of Reeva Steenkamp on Tuesday
peopleComedian's quip about Reeva Steenkamp was less than well received at music magazine awards
News
Cumberbatch spectacularly photobombs U2 at the Oscars
news
Life and Style
Could you tell the difference between this and an organic alternative?
food + drink

Culinary experts in The Netherlands thought it was 'fresh' and 'tasty'

News
Will menus with calorie counts really deter junk-food addicts from eating junk?
i100
Sport
Today's Liverpool Echo back page
football
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
News
i100
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling will not be releasing a 'romance' novel anytime soon
books
Life and Style
tech

Of all the computers Apple has ever made there’s only one that Steve Jobs had to sell his car to finance

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    2nd Line server support - Microsoft certified

    £25000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our large organisa...

    Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, Adobe, ...

    Systems Tester - Functional/Non-Functional/Full Life Cycle

    £20000 - £22000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Systems Tester - Functional/Non-Func...

    SQL Developer with T-SQL, Watford, Hertfordshire - £350 - £360

    £350 - £360 per day: Ashdown Group: SQL Developer with T-SQL, Watford, Hertfor...

    Day In a Page

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?