The telephone company has launched a new service for culture-lovers - Dial-a-Poem.

For 70 cents a minute, British Telecom's customers can hear five-minute recordings of leading poets reciting their verse.Callers dialing 0898-222255 could hear John Heath-Stubbs, 70, saying: "I'm very happy to be the first poet to be recorded in this dial-a-poem series," before reciting from four of his poems, ranging in subject matter from Noah's ark through cats in poetry to clocks and space. Heath-Stubbs is among six contemporary poets chosen for Dial-a-Poem.

It's too soon to tell whether the innovation will confound the 19th-century historian Thomas Macaulay's conviction that "as civilization advances, poetry almost necessarily declines." But something clearly is astir.

The London subway has begun displaying verses of Shelley, Burns and de la Mare on some of its trains, and a year ago the railroad company organized poetry readings at some of its stations.

Sarah Chesney of the English Language Society, the literary group that selected the poets for Dial-a-Poem, explained in a telephone interview: "We felt we should make poetry more accessible."

Added Lisa Bourne, a British Telecom spokeswoman: "Poetry was slowly fading away, and we thought it would be a great idea to bring it back."

State-owned until it was floated on the stock market in 1984, British Telecom is ever on the lookout for a profit-making sideline, and it said that if Dial-a-Poem attracted 1,000 calls a week, it would make the service permanent.

Other poets reading their verse for telephone callers during the six-week trial run are Kathleen McPhilemy, Jeremy Reed, Bernard Kops, James Berry and Gillian Allnutt.

"We wanted something refreshingly adventurous - poetry that is not so obscure that it doesn't come across well on the phone, but that is also not strictly traditional," said Chesney. She said each poet would receive 10 percent of the profits from the service.

One problem is British Telecom's phone lines, which aren't famous for their clarity. Heath-Stubbs came through somewhat faintly and would only be comprehensible in a quiet room.

"I don't think the telephone does the poets justice in a way that hearing them firsthand would," Ms. Chesney said. "But many people won't have the chance to hear them firsthand, and for them it's refreshing to hear them (the poets) in their own voices."

To listen to Heath-Stubbs' entire five minutes costs $3.45 between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. But a cheaper rate during slack hours brings the cost down to $2.25.