All Tuned-in

Anne Rouse samples a fortnight of poetry on the radio

 As I began a fortnight of listening to poetry on the radio, I expected a full-blown poet to provide a first verse. But instead, up popped Christopher Hitchens, the journalist, being interviewed on Radio 3.

The son of a naval officer, Hitchens was christened on a submarine in Malta and reared on Kipling. His first encounter with Owen's poetry "overturned the furniture in my mind", and so we heard 'Anthem for Doomed Youth': "But in their eyes / Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes." This edition of Night Waves, presented by Philip Dodd, made a thought-provoking start to a radio binge.

Keen listeners often hear "found" poems on radio: famously, the shipping forecast, or a scientist comparing a sea creature to a bathmat, or Today, quoting the Guardian on the latest celebrity knighthood: "Derek Trotter, trader in Peckham Spring Water, five-year-old Beaujolais Nouveau and Norwegian pine-scented Christmas candles, was yesterday in receipt of one working gong (no previous owner) from her Majesty the Queen."

One could say that there is poetry, too, in the very act of silent listening, although one's own habits are frankly utilitarian. Recently, I tried to clean the kitchen to Radio 4's Poetry Please, while scribbling down choice phrases. Hart Crane's 'At Melville's Tomb' had me ditching the scrub-brush altogether: "dice of drowned men's bones", "corridors of shells", "silent answers crept across the stars". Can anyone do alliteration – which so easily degenerates into a mere tongue-twister – better than Hart Crane?

That particular Poetry Please flowed to a watery theme: Melville's 'Like the Fish'; Michael Symmons Roberts on the perfect dive; Katherine Pierpoint and Sophie Hannah on swimming; Marlowe's erotically playful Hero and Leander. Oh, those mellifluous Poetry Please actor-readers! Pure gravy-plus, we were treated to a recording of Betjemen himself. Presenter Roger McGough, on top form with his own 'A Man in the Moon', knows what we armchair poetry-lovers crave.

But I'm forgetting Seamus Heaney. Front Row called on him to describe the Wordsworth Trust's newly-opened Jerwood Centre. (Imagine that: now we are going live to our reporter, and it's ... Seamus Heaney!") The £3 million building was a "big, stone, proud ship". It had a "small round tower" and a "grange made of slate." Heaney said that he'd been moved almost to tears to see in the permanent Wordsworth display "written in pencil in a little notebook", part of The Prelude: "That one, the fairest of all Rivers, lov'd / To blend his murmurs with my Nurse's song." Finally, he noted that the Lake District "isn't just a postal address, but an extension of the spirit of the work … an ongoingness."

Later in the week, on Ramblings (R4), poet Kim Taplin spoke memorably of the English footpath. Walking daily in Oxfordshire, alongside a hawthorn hedge, by a field that hasn't been ploughed since medieval times renews her sense of the past. "You never walk the same path twice … there'll be a new flower, you'll hear a bird you never heard before…", she said. "Some people feel country poetry is escapist. I think exactly the opposite, that this is the reality."

At the weekend, Radio 3's The Verb took up residence at the Hay Festival. Presenter Ian McMillan kicked off with some occasional verse, punctuated by a polite chorus of "Hay!" from the audience, like a crowd of hungry, yet diffident, donkeys. Otherwise, this Verb was heavy with music. The closest thing to a poem seemed to be Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone." It made you think. Does radio marginalise poetry? No, and yes.

No, because poetry creeps in to all kinds of discourses – discussions of nature, or war, for example, as we've heard already. When a Today presenter interviewed Patti Smith recently, he reported that she was clutching a copy of Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience. In certain contexts, poetry is used to add depth, or lend prestige. But on this occasion I felt The Verb missed a trick. Tempting as it might be to offer us a genteel mini-Glastonbury in Hay's fair fields, the producers could easily have invited poetry along, too.

Why shouldn't she get the chance to sip Pimms with wisps of grass in her hair? (Though a poet would say that.) There's a danger that radio affords poetry only a surface respect, promoting it as a quick spray-on of culture, then discounting it as a means of actual enjoyment.

My other conclusion from a fortnight of listening is that radio needs to broaden its reach, to take in more English poetry from non-mainstream sources, European, and "world" poetry – as well as the traditional favourites.

Worries on this score were somewhat allayed, however, by Lavinia Greenlaw's stellar piece, The Darkest Place, broadcast the same evening on Radio 3. She stood in the absolute dark on Dartmoor and the Suffolk coast, and heard the rain like "fading static" while quoting Emily Dickinson: "I could not see to see". She spoke of light pollution, night effects, and the English weather. After a nod to science and photography, the programme reverted to pure, lyrical perception: poetry on radio at its most alive, and telling.

Anne Rouse's latest collection is The School of Night (Bloodaxe, 2004)