And on the Fourth Friday there is music

Hylda Sims on poetry's origins in song and an event combining both at the Poetry Café

When eighteenth and nineteenth century scholars collected our popular ballads they didn't usually bother with their haunting modal settings. Pity, for these ancient poetic narratives are carried by their music as a boat is carried by a river. Poetry criticism today likewise doesn't concern itself much with how the lyric lost its lyre, the sonnet the tune of its "little song", the troubadour his lute. And I wonder if, over time, we've left the poetry boat in dry dock too long, the better to tinker with it, lost the rhythm, the melody, the ground-bass that was once all of a piece with the spoken word, in the process losing its access to "the deep heart's core" as well as to the population at large.

I listen, with interest but without involvement, to a recording of Basil Bunting reading his epic poem Briggflats. Halfway through, the harpsichord comes in playing a Scarlatti Sonata behind the voice. Suddenly, I am moved to tears. I read of Betjeman's 'sixties recordings of his poetry accompanied by rock music: "fat funky basslines … with a playability far beyond that of simple spoken-word recordings… it's the music that gives the records their delightful distinction…" enthused a Guardian reviewer. Back in those Beat days, musicians dropped by and jammed with poets. But that tradition, too, seems lost. Now, too often, song lyrics are banal, clichéd, inaudible, and poetry readings have become dry as a vicar's teaparty.

At Fourth Friday (at the Poetry Cafe, Covent Garden, 020 7420 9888) we have music and poetry, sometimes together, as in Franklin Reeve's recent performance of The Return of the Blue Cat accompanied by John Lake's jazz, or in John Hartley Williams' performance on 28 July when he will read with his musician daughter, Natalie. Reuniting music and poetry these days usually means collecting the two sides together, directing and rehearsing. This needs energy, patience, venue and money. Fourth Friday, supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England, is able to do this.

Mostly we invite contemporary singer-songwriters and a wide variety of acoustic musicians to be part of the event. The aim here is to provide an enjoyable night out for an audience broader than just the poetry scene and to encourage poets and musicians to learn from each other. This ambition too takes patience and practice. Poetry fans have been known to tramp up the infamous creaking stairs immediately after the reading leaving the disconcerted musicians to play to themselves downstairs. Conversely, in a venue where the sound of a chair scraping above sounds like Concorde landing, the chatter of musicians' groupies can be a distraction too far for the soft-spoken poet below.

We've learnt a thing or two: don't arrange the programme in the same way twice running; don't always put the music at the end; mix your poets and musicians with great care and don't let anyone go on too long. We are winning: we have a solid core of poetry lovers who love the music too and come regularly. Perhaps more surprisingly, a growing number of music fans are discovering poetry.

Hylda Sims runs Fourth Friday with singer-songwriter Liz Simcock at the Poetry Café. Her collection of poems and songs, Sayling the Babel, is published by Hearing Eye.
www.fourthfriday.co.uk