The lush rhythms of poetry and pubs

It came into its own as art of the recession - you could have a wild cultural experience in the Troubadour for pounds 4 and get to buy a poet a drink
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Alcohol is the maypole of poetry life. Poets don't take many solids, for purely (of course) economic reasons. Poets get paid peanuts, and at parties they hover round tables lapping things up like camels facing a meal-less desert. Six drinks and a pack of crisps are standard supper. You don't often see a fat poet, though Seamus Heaney's putting it on a little now.

So the Australian poet Les Murray, who won the TS Eliot Prize last week, breaks records for the unsayable, exploring the shame of fatness (a boy on the beach "holding his wet T-shirt off his breasts"), and making fat spark off against all the other cruelties he writes about.

But that's Australia. Let's say you don't see many fat British or Irish poets.

On the economic front, I once watched Carol Ann Duffy see off a large salaried journalist at a literary party. "How long", he said, jellying over her, "does it take you to write a poem?" "About five minutes," said Carol Ann, cool and instant as a small iced cappuccino. "And how much d'you get for that?" "A thousand pounds." I wish ...

Among the top 10 questions people ask poets, "Are you still writing poetry?" is a favourite: unbearable when you know you'll never write a poem again, exasperating when you're working on one. (Still building cathedrals, Mr Wren?) Another question, a male speciality, is a line of patronising suspicion which leans on the more obvious aspects of technique (that well-documented male weakness). From Greek ship-owners to Paul Johnson, they all ask, "Do you use rhyme?"

Not using rhyme in a poem is like starting to decorate without white paint. You don't have to slather the walls in it; you can mix it with Apache Orange, try fancy marbling, draw regency stripes or a frieze of zebras if you like, but you must have it on hand. Poets put rhyme mid- line, if not at the end. They squash it, slant it, run and cheat with it. Rather, I imagine, as those guys "use" maths - in shipping, or counting words for the Spectator.

Christopher Reid performed a tour de force of barking rhymes brilliantly last week at the Almeida Theatre, which hosts a reading of poets shortlisted for the Eliot prize. This is Reid's notorious curse-poem, barked back against two insomniac dogs next door. ("One has vanished since, so don't believe Auden when he says 'poetry makes nothing happen'.") Chris hinted at a magical affinity between rhyming and violence. We heard it at work in his poem about male caribou clashing on TV. Like "jousting with hatstands", he said. (Or the South Bank Show?) Good subject, the testosterone of rhyme.

It was a wonderful night at the Almeida, between the racing wind-channel of the archway and the tropical botany of the bar stuffed with glamorous agents like Pat Kavanagh, who you never saw at poetry readings before Valerie Eliot and the Poetry Book Society created the Eliot prize. People were being turned away in glossy herds. ("Full up? But it's a poetry reading.")

Ian McDiarmid, who runs the theatre, recognises poetry as the newly fashionable art-about-town. Poetry came into its own as art of the recession. You could have a wild cultural experience for pounds 4 in the heady chiaroscuro of the Troubadour basement, and get to buy a poet a drink.

But prizes are turning poetry into a bloodsport. For 10 shortlisted poets, the Eliot prize means a Sunday evening reading, a nail-biting Monday while the judges do their bit alone, then a media party announcing the winner. Horrible, watching friends whose work you've loved and admired for maybe years, waiting to hear who's won. Novelists face it on telly for the Booker but it shouldn't happen to a poet.

Still, if the cost of poetry's new chic is nine souls going through hell two days a year, I suppose it must be paid. As a judge, I got rung up afterwards for comments about Les Murray by an arts editor who didn't approve of prizes but wouldn't have had a story without them.

The Almeida evening only sputtered when an Australian actor from Neighbours, invited to read Les's work (since he comes from the same place), said he'd never heard of him, and sent up the blurb on the back of his book. "'Poet of the sacred, but wise to this world': doesn't leave much out, does he?" If he'd known his job it might have been OK, but Neighbours doesn't give much practice in words and he read as if he'd just picked up his Albanian granny's recipe for chestnut stuffing, confirming all poets in their conviction that actors can't read poems.

Writing Poetry, an about-to-be-indispensable handbook by Matthew Sweeney and John Hartley Williams (out in April), says the same. "Actors think poets can't read their own poems; poets know actors can't."

Writing Poetry warns you of poetry's belt-tightening economics and goes deep into technicalities such as rhyme (though not its testosteronics), and other features of the poetry landscape. Except - Matthew, John, bless the bed we all lie on, how could you leave it out? - for alcohol. When my daughter's class discussed "Do not go gentle into that good night", a clued-up kid asked, "Wasn't Dylan Thomas an alcoholic?" "All poets are alcoholics," came the answer. Lovely daughterly bristles ("My mum's a poet and she's not ..." ) - but her real view surfaced the following week when I was late picking her up. "I thought you'd done a reading, got drunk, and forgotten me." Not that I ever ... Oh well.

The writer was a judge for the 1996 T S Eliot Prize. Her most recent poetry collection is 'Fusewire' (Chatto and Windus).

Where to hear poetry, or buy a poet a drink: Poetry Book Society, 0181- 870-8403; Troubadour Cafe poetry readings, 0171-835 2282; Piccadilly Poets, 0171-287-2875.