In the Nineties' salon, poets rub shoulders with pop stars, philosophy gigs are a sell-out and clubbers rediscover conversation. Oliver Bennett reports
Today is the last day of what could be called Bardstock - the Poetry Olympics at the Royal Albert Hall. Cumbersomely tagged "A Hip Mass: The Superjam" this afternoon's session not only uses the language of rock in its title, but also draws some of its practitioners. Damon Albarn will perform with his lyrical bloodline Ray Davies; Patti Smith and Nick Cave will rub shoulders with the jazz poet Adrian Mitchell. If this all sounds very happening, boundary- breaking and Pop Art, then that's partly down to the organiser Michael Horowitz, who set up the First International Poetry Incarnation at the same venue in 1965 and who remains a living link between then and now.

In the Sixties the cutting edge crowd dabbled in art and pop. The Beatles and the Stones schmoozed at London's Indica Gallery, the Liverpool Poets wrote couplets that subsequently became lyrics and there were multifarious left-field environments and events to attend.

Now, in the Nineties spoken-word events, salons, art installations and galleries are again becoming the most happening hang-outs. For a new breed of youthful cognoscenti, culture is becoming the leisure activity of choice. People in the arts are delighted. "The idea that poetry should be exclusive is completely wrong," says Chris Meade, director of the Poetry Society, relocated from its duffel-coat-and-sandals location in Earl's Court to a glossy new Covent Garden venue called the Poetry Place with a smart cafe and high-profile members such as Emma Thompson and Ben Elton. "It amazes me that poets attract rather than repel the young crowd," adds Meade. But there is, he says, a need. "So many of the words we hear are predictable. Poetry does strange things to you." Maybe poetry is the new drug.

It certainly seemed that way at east London's Blue Note nightclub recently: a bookstall could be discerned through the gloom, where crowds of pasty groovers actually talked and "nice one, geezer" was not, one suspected, as far as the conversation went. Every so often there was a rush to the dancefloor, not to dance, but to hear Irvine Welsh and Hanif Kureishi read from their work.

A few days later in Blacks club, Soho, Jibby's Arts Club fielded a rum crew of performance artists, poets and singers. Run by glamorous Brit- art maven Jibby Beane, it offered what she called "the atmosphere of a salon" for a growing crowd who wish to mix an appreciation of art, literature, and music with soigne social life. Beane is hoping to open a new space next year which will continue the project with a coffee bar, bookshop, and arts club - "I have to tap into what's new," she breathes.

A cursory glance will reveal art and spoken-word events cropping up in the oddest London venues. Filthy McNasty's, an Irish pub in Islington, has a series of finely attended literary talks. Lux Vomica is a performance club at the Tufnell Park Tavern. Ducky, a mixed-gay night in Vauxhall, fields anything from strippers to poets and Notting Hill's neo-beats go to Ma's Cafe in All Saint's Road for poetry club Pull My Daisy. The media are also mixed in Edinburgh, where the Yellow Cafe and Rebel Inc organisations stage readings, sometimes in clubs, and in Brighton, Do Tongues put on spoken word events. "Culture has definitely become more recreational," says James Lingwood of the Artangel Trust, the agency for public art. "Old habits have been broken. There's been a loss of fear and all sorts of people are now prepared to invest time and energy going to arts because they rightly think they will get something back." Talks are particularly popular with the "cultivated leisure" crowd. "Attendance has more than doubled," says Andrew Brighton of the Tate Gallery's talks department. And the audiences, he adds, have changed - older visitors might be content to sit and lap it up, but the under-35s, true to some rollicking Left Bank spirit, relish a good old verbal dust-up.

At the ICA, too, the talks programme has become increasingly important; tickets for a lecture by the philosopher Jacques Derrida sold out in half an hour. "It is the antithesis of three-minute culture," says ICA spokeswoman Helena Reckitt. And if the talks are "pleasurably difficult" to use her phrase, then so much the better. The ICA also has that key aid to intellectual discourse: a bar. After a recent tribute to Jean Genet, Morrissey mingled with Patti Smith while the cadaverous presences of Nick Cave and PJ Harvey loomed in the background playing the poete maudit thing to the hilt.

A few years ago someone crunched the statistics and came up with a new cliche: more people go to art galleries than to football matches. Certainly, despite gloom about funding, the sector is comparatively bullish. There were 100 million museum visits last year; eight million visits to art shows; 10 million visits to the theatre and there are a 550 arts festivals; 2.4 per cent of the working population are occupied in the "cultural sector", and of this sample, most are under 34 years old.

Ernesto Leal, a Scottish entrepreneur who put on the Blue Note event under his Artthrob banner, used to run conventional clubs until he spotted a gap in the market. "A lot of people are tired of the standard things they get at clubs," he says. "The crowd is older now and they want an alternative." As for the writers, he adds, "these are the people they want to reach". To Leal, it seemed to make sense to offer something extra. "Film, literature, photos, music: you get the lot for pounds 5," says this cultural costermonger.

A veteran of just five Artthrob events, Ernesto Leal is already tired of the question: is literature the new rock 'n' roll?' "How many times?" he asks, wearily. "Literature is literature, and rock is rock." But who knows? At this rate the next thing will be poets bounding on stadium stages in spandex, bellowing: "Hello London!"