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Poetry

....Having had poetry pounded into me brutally at the curious schools I attended I am only just finding out that poetry can be really enjoyed and appreciated. (Peel in his Perfumed Garden column, International Times, 8 March 1968) [1]

Throughout his career, John Peel included poetry and spoken word material of various types among the records and sessions in his programmes.

Poetry and music have been linked since time immemorial, but in the 1950s, the combination of jazz and poetry favoured by the American Beat Generation poets (and their followers in the UK and elsewhere) had a "hip", modernist image which attracted young audiences. Then, in the 1960s, the connections between poetry and song were highlighted by the popularity of folk music. Traditional folk ballads, many of which had been discovered by collectors with a literary background, were later included in poetry anthologies, and served as a model for new songs. Contemporary, folk-influenced songwriters such as Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Leonard Cohen also published books of their own and their lyrics often owed more to poetry than to Tin Pan Alley pop song conventions. It became fashionable among critics to describe 1960s pop lyrics as poetry, and even during his time in the USA, Peel was aware of this, contributing a poem of his own to the Kmentertainer in late 1966.[2]

After Peel returned to Britain, poetry was a feature of his Perfumed Garden programmes, on which he read poems from the popular anthology The Liverpool Scene and others sent in by listeners, as well as playing tracks from the Incredible New Liverpool Scene LP and by artists such as Donovan, whom he considered a poet (although not all critics shared his high opinion of the singer's lyrics). Peel invited his listeners to vote in a "poet laureate" competition, and Donovan was the winner, with Roger McGough second, and John Lennon third.[3] When the DJ began to contribute Perfumed Garden columns to International Times, he would recommend new books by the poets he favoured to his readers, alongside new records. In addition, some of the gigs he introduced during 1967-68 had poets and musicians on the same bill, such as the "Kaleidoscope of Word Music" at the Roundhouse (December 1967) and the "Dance of Words" event in Portsmouth (May 1968).

When Peel joined Radio 1, some of his supporters in the BBC, including station controller Robin Scott(2) and poet and radio producer George Macbeth, encouraged him to include poetry in his Night Ride programmes, with most shows featuring a poet reading his or her work live in the studio. Most of the poets who appeared on the show were regulars on the poetry-reading circuit which had developed in Britain during the 1960s, including Adrian Mitchell, Adrian Henri, Roger McGough, Brian Patten, Pete Brown, Peel's friend and neighbour Pete Roche - and Ivor Cutler, who proved to be the most enduring Peel favourite to emerge from this era. Even Marc Bolan of Tyrannosaurus Rex made an appearance as a poet on one 1969 "son of Night Ride" show, reading from his volume The Warlock of Love.

Night Ride ended in late 1969, but poetry and spoken word records or sessions didn't disappear entirely from Peel playlists, with further sessions from Adrian Henri, Ivor Cutler, and Vivian Stanshall, whose Sir Henry at Rawlinson End tales, done as Peel sessions, were eventually made into a film. Then, in the wake of the punk revolution, a new wave of performance poets and spoken word artists emerged, among them John Cooper Clarke, Attila The Stockbroker, Craig Charles, Joolz, the "folk-punk" poet and songwriter Patrik Fitzgerald, and from the reggae scene, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Michael Smith and Benjamin Zephaniah. Black Americans such as the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron pioneered a style which developed into hip-hop and rap, genres which also featured strong messages and skilled wordplay.

Peel's programmes didn't just include poetry, but inspired another generation of poets, notably John Hegley (who did a Peel session under his own name in 1996, as well as two the previous decade with the Popticians), Simon Armitage and Ian McMillan, all of them Peel listeners. McMillan became a broadcaster, hosting Radio 3's The Verb, described as a "cabaret of the word" and more informal than previous poetry programmes on the network. It sometimes featured guest musicians such as Peter Blegvad, who had done Peel sessions in the 1970s as a member of Slapp Happy.

But Peel himself, in his later years, became more conservative in his literary tastes and, like many people who wrote poems in their youth, seemed embarrassed by his earlier enthusiasm. Although he continued to play various kinds of music with interesting and sometimes poetic lyrics, after 1980 he seemed to show less of an interest in the kind of poetry he had encouraged on the Perfumed Garden and Night Ride - particularly the Beat-style poems of the likes of Patti Smith, whom he rubbished on air on a 1975 edition of Roundtable. Nonetheless, during Peel's radio career there was an increasing tendency for pop and rock artists to chant or recite, rather than sing, their lyrics. Among those who used this technique were two of the DJ's all-time favourites, Captain Beefheart and Mark E. Smith of the Fall. Peel remained open to poems with more direct messages and on 23 January 2003 hosted a "Burns (pre-) Supper Special", with Scottish artists Belle & Sebastian, Ballboy and the Delgados performing musical settings of poems by Scotland's national bard.

Interestingly, half a century after Peel had staged his own poet laureate poll on the Perfumed Garden, two twenty-first century holders of the official title of Poet Laureate had Peel connections. Carol Ann Duffy, who in her youth was inspired by (and later lived with) Adrian Henri, held the post from 2009 to 2019, while her successor Simon Armitage appeared on Peel's show (as well as being a regular guest on Mark Radcliffe's programmes) and wrote an article about the experience of working with the DJ.

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