A hundred poets are unleashed on Britain

David Lister on a scheme to put verse in such places as Kew, M&S and Barnsley FC
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A POET musing could soon be as common a sight in the office corridor as a security guard or trolley lady. In the next two years, more than 100 poets will be spending time in businesses, prisons, football clubs, canteens and gardens as part of a burgeoning verse industry.

Thanks to the enthusiasm of the Poetry Society and funds from the National Lottery, poets are being hired by a variety of employers. Tomorrow, two poets begin work: John Agard at the BBC and Peter Samson at Marks & Spencer.

Mr Agard, a striking performance poet with beard, pony tail, expansive gesticulations and a mastery of the dialects of the Caribbean, where he was born, will make his presence felt in the BBC canteen.

As well as having a key role in a BBC season of programmes marking the 50th anniversary of the first major wave of West Indian immigrants, he hopes to persuade programme-makers to include poems in gardening and cookery programmes and Songs of Praise. He will also make himself available to BBC staff for poetic guidance, during a six-month tenure funded by pounds 10,000 from the Poetry Society, which received pounds 450,000 of lottery money for "poetry placements".

Others employing poets include Kew Gardens, which has Sarah McGuire in her dream job, as she is both a poet and a horticulturalist, and Barnsley Football Club, with pre-training stanzas from Ian McMillan, whose euphoric verse of last year, as the club was promoted to the Premier League, may have mellowed, as the team languishes in the relegation zone. Then, there is Lavinia Greenlaw, who is paid pounds 10,000 a year to be the poet with a firm of solicitors - not bad for half a day a week, but as the firm is Mishcon de Reya the salary must be among the lowest ever known in its office.

There have been a few poet placements over the past 10 years - leaving aside special sponsored schemes for schools and prisons - but even now there are only a handful of formally recognised poets-in-residence. As the Poetry Society's director, Chris Meade, said, with pounds 450,000 to spend, there are about to be many more.

"We're planning to put poets in zoos, on the Internet and on a project called 'Poetry in the Waiting Room'," he said. "Poets will visit doctors' surgeries. A poem can help soothe people and help them confront difficult feelings. In all, the poet-in-residence schemes, the poets lift staff morale."

This is the hope at Marks & Spencer, where Peter Sansom begins his placement this week. He has already conducted a pilot workshop at which all 15 staff who attended were writing poems by the end of the session.

Judith Palmer from the literature programme at London's South Bank Centre, where there have been two poets-in-residence in the Nineties, Mr Agard and Matthew Sweeney - a duo who seem to be forming a poet-in-residence circuit - said they were of enormous benefit to the arts programme. But the people who called on them most were those working in the coffee shop and the bar.

"They dropped by to chat and get advice from the poets on poetry and on life or to share a Guinness with John Agard. John was the poet-in-residence- in-the-bar."

It is also true that employing a resident poet is a relatively safe bet politically for big institutions. The poet's observations are likely to be spiritual, romantic or so covered in imagery as to be uncontroversial.

A resident playwright, for example, might reveal too many secrets in the resulting work. Neil Kinnock let David Hare observe Labour's 1992 election campaign, only to observe ruefully that the ensuing play, Absence of War, starring John Thaw as an exceedingly rhetorical Welsh leader of the party, was a well-structured play but made him [Kinnock] look incompetent.

But, once again, poetry has a chance to be controversial. Mr Agard said last week he would not shy away from writing poems about staff problems at the BBC.

And Ms Greenlaw, who has many of the 250 staff at Mishcon de Reya sending her their poems by e-mail, might be able to write something pertaining more to legal affairs than her first poem for the firm, which began: "Dying wasps make drunken passes at my hair."

The recent controversy over the fees charged by Mishcon de Reya for work on the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund has poetic potential, surely. The man at the centre of the storm, senior partner Anthony Julius, could hardly object. In his spare time he has given guest lectures at London University - on poetry.

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