LONDON — It's just past 9 a.m. and the newsroom already is abuzz here at the British Broadcasting Corp.
The producer, director, researchers and writers of tonight's newscast are gathered around a conference table, holding their first meeting of the day. A video of the BBC's morning news is playing and a list of the top story prospects is written on the blackboard.
"The Nobel Peace Prize will be announced at 11," says executive producer Peter Symes, reading from a sheet, "and it says here Mandela and De Klerk are the favorites."
Symes turns to the writer assigned to the story. "Let's talk about how you're going to handle it poetically," he says.
"Maybe something in quick couplets," the writer responds.
The phone rings. Symes picks it up and answers tersely: "Poets' News."
England, the land of Shakespeare and Chaucer, Byron and Keats, offers the poet recognition in ways not generally found elsewhere.
For those who are universally lauded--and dead--there is the possibility of spending eternity with writers of similar distinction in that pantheon of English literature, Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey.
On a slightly lesser scale, poets dead or alive, British or foreign, may be given the honor of having their work displayed prominently before the traveling public. London's subway system runs a highly regarded poetry-on-placards series called Poems on the Underground.
And, unusually, though probably not uniquely, some of the biggest newspapers in Britain publish a daily poem, offering contemporary poets a readership vastly greater than their works might ordinarily attract.
So it should come as no surprise to find poets presenting the nightly news on British television.
Story: Confusion over Somalia.
Visuals: U.S. soldiers, Somali fighters, grim images of poverty and starvation.
Voice of poet Simon Rae:
\o7 We came to see the starving fed
And ended with a pile of dead
The victims turned and bit the hand that tried to feed them
Understand that conundrum if you can
And now we need another plan
We're reinforcing for a war
From which we know we must withdraw
\f7 As part of a BBC celebration of poetry on TV earlier this month ("Poems on the Box"), the mammoth broadcasting company brought together a team of program-makers and poets to create a nightly five-minute program, "Poets' News."
The project, aimed at providing an alternative view to traditional coverage, proved so successful, it now appears likely to become a regular feature on the non-commercial channel.
Participating poets suddenly found themselves working to tight deadlines, writing and rewriting verse to fit video footage flowing in from around the world.
They addressed the biggest stories of the day: Somalia. Northern Ireland. Soccer hooligans. Bosnia. Racist attacks. Unemployment.
Some of the poets took to the streets to film stand-up reports. Others provided voice-overs to the footage shot by regular BBC news crews.
Story: National Back Pain Week.
Visuals: Poet Roger McGough, resembling a TV weatherman, stands in front of a weather map of a human body.
\o7 Let's start with the head, where tonight
A depression centered over the brain
Will lift. Dark clouds move away
And pain will be widespread,
but light\f7 . . .
Symes, a documentary producer for the BBC, had been working with poets for 10 years when he was given approval to create the "Poets' News."
"I think you can do things in verse that you can't do in prose," he says. "I think poets have a very interesting perception of life. They have a different perspective to offer."
Among Symes' film and verse collaborations was a documentary for the BBC, written by poet Tony Harrison, about the death threats facing author Salman Rushdie. The film attracted nearly five million viewers--substantial ratings for any current affairs program in Britain, let alone one in verse.
"That established us," says Symes. "After that, people couldn't say it doesn't work."
All told, he's made more than a dozen films in verse, each 40 to 60 minutes long, on a variety of topics such as a murder case, racism in London and public housing projects.
"That led me to think poetry can cover anything," says Symes.
So when the head of BBC2--the BBC's out-of-the-mainstream channel--agreed to plans for the weeklong "Poetry on the Box," series, Symes chimed in with an odd request.
"I said, 'We'd quite like to do the news,' thinking he'd say no," recalls Symes. "He said, 'You're on.' He called my bluff."
Symes then had to elicit help from the regular BBC news department, which agreed to supply advice and video footage and allow staffers from "Poets' News" to attend meetings where BBC news coverage is planned.
Symes also had to pick his team of "reporters."
"It was tricky," he says. "I wanted a balance. I wanted men and women and different types of poetry technique."
Story: Holland defeats England 2-0 in soccer, dashing England's hopes to compete for the World Cup in 1994--and ending the likelihood of English soccer hooligans running rampant in the United States.