Macho man v new man? Who cares? Give me a poet any day

In the latest volume of her autobiography, the writer Emma Tennant reminisces about her lusty affair with the late Poet Laureate Ted Hughes. In 1976, after a drink at a bar in Notting Hill, Hughes invited Tennant back to his lair in Tufnell Park, north London. Here, amid "rumpled sheets" and "piles of typescripts", the two indulged their illicit passion.

In a comic if unwitting coincidence, Tennant's revelation of her panting and bone-crunching sessions with the married Poet Laureate was published on the same day that the Prime Minister launched his moral crusade for the nation. The bard of the bad and the bawdy provided a wonderful contrast to the pope of new Labour - and reminded us why in these pi and prosaic times, poets are seductive and poet laureates irresistible.

Blair beat his chest and the back-to-basics drum, delivering a sermon about ideal virtues in an ideal world; the dead poet, meanwhile, lured us with a come-hither wink to accept a reality where basic instincts may be curbed but can't be killed. While Tony soberly told us how to keep teenage sex at bay - curfews, sex education and the CSA chasing 16-year-old boys - Ted's ghost spoke seductively of yielding to temptations of the flesh. Probity v poetry: no prizes for who can guess the winner.

There is nothing new in the poet's allure. Since the days of Pindar, the bard has been the object of fascination and adoration for seeing the lyrical in the quotidian and giving rhythm to the prosaic. Cyrano used poems, not diamonds, to court Roxanne; Romeo pledged his troth to Juliet in rhyming couplets, not a short story.

Today, the verse-crafter's appeal is even stronger. For those who seek an exit visa from Blair's moral nation, he is both guide and example. He alone is given licence to extol - and experience - "irregular" relationships. Echoing Lord Byron and his incestuous love for his half-sister, Augusta, and Paul Verlaine and his homosexual passion for Rimbaud, the bards ignore virtuous living and thumb their nose at establishment values. Truth is beauty, not some ethical principle; decadence is inevitable, not some heinous sin.

In real life, as in iambic pentameter, the bard blurs boundaries between what is acceptable and what isn't: he won't offer a prescription for the way to live, only a lesson in how to make life more bearable.

Not all poets - and certainly not all poet laureates - prove the exception to the moral majority rule. Yet even without the excitement of adulterous trysts or gay romps, the poet of today finds us an eager audience. How welcome, his nuances and elliptical messages amid our nineties' exhibitionism. Confessional television and celebrities' posturings leave nothing to the imagination; daily, prurient papers drag us into the domestic lives of the Ian McEwans, Tara Palmer-Tomkinsons and Emma Tennants. This over-exposure bleaches our lives of mystery and romance - which become relegated instead to poetry, with its nameless love objects, echoes of the past and the subtlest of allusions to contemporary debate.

Here the literal must be interpreted, meaning can be multi-layered and the bald statement gives way to suggestion. There is no romance in the in-your-face; but there is, plenty, in verse, where subtlety and rhythm lend the most pedestrian content beauteous form.

Finally, the poet holds out the promise of the greatest adventure to his disciples: immortality. Whether as muse or subject, the love object will live beyond the grave - unlined by old age, unhindered by ill health, unrestrained by new Labour's moral corset. It is this vision that seals the poet's attractions. Machos are for hunting, gathering - and grunting. New men are for sharing, caring - and housekeeping. But poets are for ever.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kids just say no to party politics