Poems as performance: John Cooper Clarke

Last week I squeezed into a packed and sweaty auditorium at the South Bank Centre to watch performance poet and punk legend John Cooper Clarke’s show for the London Literature Festival.

The Bard of Salford was on good form, despite the temperature. Now in his 60s, he still has the style of Bob Dylan, mixed with the dead-pan delivery of Alan Bennett and just the right sprinkle of Bernard Manning. He delivered a stream of curiously old-fashioned stand-up, interspersed with his own brand of rapid-fire performance poetry. His disjointed jokes and puns revelled in an infectious love of language, perfect for a literary festival. (“If you shot a peasant, could you get off on the grounds of dyslexia?”)

John Cooper Clarke, photo by Tim Duncan

John Cooper Clarke, photo by Tim Duncan

His poems, which were clearly what the crowd had come to hear, were fast, funny, and close to the bone. Performing some by heart and reading others from a scruffy handwritten notepad, he kept the audience happy with classics like Beasley Street and Evidently Chicken Town, as well as a few less familiar ones.

Short, simple and deceptively slight in subject matter, his poems work because of the obvious joy they take in the performance possibilities of rhyme and rhythm. My favourites were the frenetic Hire Car, (“Hire car, hire car, why would anybody buy a car, bang it, prang it, say ta-ta, it’s a hire car, baby”) and the brilliantly un-PC ode to sex changes, Crossing the Floor (“Bye-bye Boddingtons, hello shorts, I wear size 9 kitten-heel courts. I’m going to get a vagina … of sorts.”) It’s no surprise that after 30 years performing, Cooper Clarke’s work is still a major influence on modern bands whose lyrics hover between poetic story-telling and music, from The Streets to the Arctic Monkeys.

The ‘Very Best of’ CD I bought after the show has a good mix of Cooper Clarke’s stuff – some straight poetry and some poems performed to music, blurring the lines between the two genres. We’ve been listening to it all weekend at work.

Inspired, I’ve made a start on a playlist celebrating cross-overs between music and poetry. It’s a bit eclectic so far, but I rather like the contrast between Tom Waits talking us through Small Change and the spooky recording of John Masefield’s sing-song rendition of Sea Fever, or the leap from Woody Guthrie’s Washington Talkin’ Blues to Ivor Cutler’s weird Scottish ramblings.

If you have Spotify, you can have a listen at this link. Otherwise, here’s my “Pusic? No, Moetry” tracklisting, for anyone who fancies reconstructing it themselves. Suggested additions welcome…

Pusic? No, Moetry  – A Playlist
John Cooper Clarke – Twat
The Streets – Don’t Mug Yourself
Sir John Betjeman – The Licorice Fields At Pontefract
Tom Waits – Small Change
Flanders & Swann – The Gnu Song
Woody Guthrie – Washington Talkin’ Blues
Ivor Cutler – Life In A Scotch Sittingroom
Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band – The Host The Ghost The Most Holy O
Edith Sitwell – Scotch Rhapsody
Langston Hughes – The Story of the Blues
John Lee Hooker – Talkin’ The Blues
John Masefield – Sea Fever
John Cooper Clarke – Evidently Chickentown

Emily Cleaver

About Emily Cleaver

Emily Cleaver is Litro’s Online Editor. She is passionate about short stories and writes, reads and reviews them. Her own stories have been published in the London Lies anthology from Arachne Press, Paraxis, .Cent, The Mechanics’ Institute Review, One Eye Grey, and Smoke magazines, performed to audiences at Liars League, Stand Up Tragedy, WritLOUD, Tales of the Decongested and Spark London and broadcasted on Resonance FM and Pagan Radio. As a former manager of one of London’s oldest second-hand bookshops, she also blogs about old and obscure books. You can read her tiny true dramas about working in a secondhand bookshop at smallplays.com and see more of her writing at emilycleaver.net.

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  1. Readers who are interested in this should check out our new YouTube channel: LitroTV. We plan to upload readers’ video performances. Keep an eye on the website for more details.

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