The lines they are a changin' as pop turns into poetry

Dylan vs Keats, Cocker vs Coleridge - Jack O'Sullivan finds poets praising the lyrical virtuosity of the rock star
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Indy Lifestyle Online
WILLIAM BLAKE would have had no problem with the Culture Secretary Chris Smith placing Bob Dylan alongside Keats in poetry's hall of fame as an equally talented writer. After all, Blake used to sing his "Songs of Innocence and Experience" - and Van Morrison has set several of his works to music. Nor, perhaps would Robert Burns be bothered by the Culture Secretary's rankings. "My Love is Like A Red, Red Rose" is as beautiful sung as it is recited. Go back to Homer and you find it difficult to distinguish lyricist from poet.

Yet most poets see themselves as practising a very different art from their rhythmic cousins. They are slightly appalled at attempts to place them in the same league. "When you are writing a poem, you are setting it to music at the same time," explains Don Paterson, winner of this year's TS Eliot prize. "You are trying to speak musically. In contrast, the skill of lyric writing is in leaving space for the music. Most poets are bad at that because they want to fill all the parts."

Michael Donaghy, the American-born poet, is more emphatic. "Robert Lowell said in 1959 of the lesser beat poets that their poetry sounded like an unscored libretto. That's how I feel about reading pop lyrics that pass themselves off as poetry. Bob Dylan is great supported by his band, his guitar and the rasp of his voice, but the effect of reading his lyrics on the page is like getting a ten minute self-indulgent electric guitar solo without the bass and drums. With Keats you get the bass and drums. Everything is there on the page. A great poet puts it all there for you to unlock with your mind's ear."

It's a division that Adrian Mitchell, the performing poet and playwright, cannot accept. He highlights the long history of poet/lyricists not only here but in Europe, notably Jacques Prevert's work for Forties' French cabaret and Brecht's lyric writing for the German theatre.

"I am against the erection of a Berlin Wall between lyrics and poetry. I am interested in what is good and bad, what is empty and what is full of gold."

Yet, regardless of this debate, poets are moved and inspired by pop lyricists. Their obliqueness is particularly valued. "I learn when they approach a problem from an odd, creative angle," says Ruth Padel, who likes singer songwriters, such as Laurie Anderson, Tori Amos, Michelle Shocked and Tracey Chapman. That same word "oblique" crops up again with Paul Farley, the up and coming poet, whose first collection, "The Boy From the Chemist Is Here To See You" has just been published. "An oblique approach appeals to the poet because you have the whole concept of the word carrying great weight and the sound of it meaning more than what the word signifies."

So who are the poets' favourite lyricists? The usual suspects litter their lists: Lennon, McCartney and, of course, Dylan. Jarvis Cocker, full of irony, ranks high.

"'Common People' is a great piece of shit stirring about middle class people slumming it," says Paul Farley, who also rates Alex Chilton from Big Star. And Elvis Costello scores consistently high - "lyrics you can listen to again and again," says Adrian Mitchell, who is currently compiling an anthology for teenagers including works by McCartney and Chuck Berry.

When asked to give his views on the great debate sparked by Chris Smith's comments, Mitchell inevitably came up with a short poem, entitled "The Hamburgerisation of Poetry":

My wife Celia said:

Don't say anything stupid.

Just say: Keats and Bob Dylan - They both died young."