Poetry is the new rock'n'roll: there's a record to prove it
Sunday 26 January 1997
The release of an album of rock songs of the poems of WB Yeats - featuring The Cranberries, Shane MacGowan, Van Morrison, and The Waterboys - means poetry has become officially hot.
Now and in Time to Be, to be released by Grapevine Records on Monday week, will feature the words of Yeats classics such as "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death", "He Wishes For The Cloths of Heaven" and "Under Ben Bulben", and even the great artist himself reciting "The Lake Isle of Innisfree". Yeats, it seems, is to be the next Big Thing.
The trend started with Four Weddings and a Funeral, and the actor John Hannah's gut-wrenching rendition of Auden's "Funeral Blues" - "He was my North, my South, my East and West,/ My working week and my Sundays rest" - and it snowballed from there.
A slim and cunningly edited selection of Auden poems, including "Funeral Blues", sold frenziedly in bookshops across the country. Auden experienced a boom. Then the Government woke up to the phenomenon and used footage of Hannah from Four Weddings in a hard- hitting road-safety campaign featuring videos of dead children.
Poems on the Underground has fuelled the phenomenon with its highly praised campaign to get verse on the Tube. This has pushed up sales of the poetry it features, and the initiative is spreading worldwide with recent sightings on the New York subway, the Paris Metro, the Dublin DART and in the Scandinavian capitals.
The latest evidence of the growing popularity of poetry in Britain came last week with the award of the Whitbread Book of the Year to the poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney - to the shock of the literary world, which had picked the novelist Beryl Bainbridge as the sure-fire winner.
With the release of the Yeats album it seems that music, one of the most fashion-influenced sectors, has taken poetry to its heart. The news does not surprise Peter Forbes, editor of Poetry Review magazine, who believes poetry and pop music are coming closer together. "These days poetry can more than hold its own against popular song," he says.
He attributes the poetry renaissance to the increasing media savvy of poets and poetry-supporters. "But you could say that other sources of consolation and reassurance, like religion, may have diminished in life. People feel that poetry fills the gap."
Sales are certainly increasing. Almost 1,800 poetry books were published in 1994, up 26 per cent on the year before, and 154 per cent on 1975.
Andrew Motion, the poet and biographer who chairs the Arts Council's literature panel, sees poetry as finally coming out of the closet. "Poetry is no longer a thing that could only be read in private, that you didn't really talk about with friends," he says. "It's on the Tube and in the newspapers. The embarassment factor is enormously reduced."
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