John Cooper Clarke stands as a dusty relic of the punk era, a man who towers tall (quite literally – tall and spindly, with a scarecrow shock of hair) in the modern age. Just look at him and you get the sense he’s been everywhere, experienced everything of life – and particularly more than dabbled in his fair share of excesses.
His brusque, matter-of-factly delivered, satirically edged performance poetry is refreshingly free from pretension or artifice of any kind. He takes us along with him at high-velocity, 100 miles per hour.
Often deceivingly simple, his poetry is equally brutally powerful and beautiful. Evidently Chickentown is a stark vignette of the dull tedium and despair born of living in poverty, in a town where there is nothing to do but ‘fucking wait and fucking wait’ and ‘the fucking days are fucking long it fucking gets you fucking down’. Born out of the 80s, when Clarke was addicted to heroin, it’s a deeply dark poem. A heightened sense of entrapment and claustrophobia is hammered in to us through each repetition of – well, you know, that main word in the poem:
Clarke intersperses his recitations with wry observations and anecdotes, seamlessly moving from the role of stand-up comedian to performance poet, and a lot of his poetry is very funny. He undermines poetic conventions at every turn.
His version of the haiku form is a particular stroke of subversive genius. A haiku has to be formed of three lines, composed of a total of seventeen syllables (five syllables on the first and last lines, seven syllables on the second). Enter Clarke’s version:
TO-CON-VEY ONE’S MOOD
IN SEV-EN-TEEN SYLL-ABLE-S
IS VE-RY DIF-FIC
It’s rotten here in jail, which he penned for Amnesty International, is one of the highlights – a raw and visceral piece. Clarke prefaces this poem by saying that he actually only spent three days in jail once for stealing a car. Yet he brings a horrific jail-time atmosphere incredibly vividly to life:
John Cooper Clarke doesn’t stop – he performs, on average, 100 shows a year.
I caught him on Friday at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, but his UK tour continues. Check out his website for the latest dates.