Punk poet John Cooper Clarke is not a man with a mission

by James Belfield / 09 April, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Poet John Cooper Clarke

John Cooper Clarke at Alexandra Palace, London, 1980. Photo/Getty Images

John Cooper Clarke has made a five-decade career out of poetry, from opening gigs for the Sex Pistols to appearances on British panel shows, but he doesn't pretend to be an evangelist for the medium.

"If I thought there was anything didactic about what I do," he says, "I’d have to retire out of common decency.

“I’ve never really seen myself as working for the good of poetry – just my own. And I don’t have a mission to change people in any way. While I’m spouting my stuff on stage, that’s got to be the most important thing happening right now.”

If you’re heading to a Cooper Clarke show, you’re probably not expecting a post-millennial Keats or Betjeman. And you’ll no doubt already be au fait with such titles as You Never See a Nipple in the Daily Express, Evidently Chickentown (which appeared in an episode of The Sopranos) and I Wanna Be Yours (adapted as a song by the Arctic Monkeys in 2013).

The performance poet celebrated his 69th birthday last month and seems as surprised as anyone that he’s made it this far (he battled childhood tuberculosis and a decade of heroin addiction). The death in January of long-time friend and Fall frontman Mark E Smith at 60 has also been a recent brush with mortality.

“We’d known each other since we were lads,” he says. “With the Fall, he had a unique way with language, so we had that in common, too, and were always running into each other at festivals or going on tour together. It was always a pleasure to run into Smithy, but alas no more. He was a one-off, and I have a fantastic love for his music. Rock and roll all the way.”

“With Mark E Smith’s death, the world has got a little bit more compliant – and having everybody singing from the same hymn sheet is not a good thing at all.”

Like Smith, Cooper Clarke has never been short of ambition for his art, even when touting his peculiar wares around working men’s clubs in north-west England in the 70s.

“What is a poet that isn’t known? The answer is, he’s nothing, just the local eccentric. So, once you get that difficult time out of the way and you become a high-profile poet, it becomes easier,” he says.

“I was always determined to be a professional from the beginning and I quickly found I had a gift for it. I thought if I could sharpen this gift to a skill, then it could be used to entertain people and my living would not be in vain.

In February 2017. Photo/Getty Images

“There wasn’t a scene or any legitimate route to acceptance, only maybe to send work off to a publisher, but I always figured that poetry is a phonetic medium and best enjoyed by listening to it rather than reading it off a sheet. I thought the best way to enter public consciousness was to do public appearances in places where you might not expect to find poetry.”

Initially, his topics were regional people and places, but as his fame grew and international tours followed – his first trip to New Zealand was a 1982 spot opening for fellow Mancunian lads New Order – he says he became “more public-minded”.

The musicality of Cooper Clarke's delivery – that northern rolling-drawl assonance punctuated by pounding staccato rhythms – means he’s long been associated with the Manchester music scene and, surprisingly, it’s also won him fans in non-English-speaking parts of the world.

“I’ve done places like Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Italy, Spain and Portugal and that is surprising, but they must be getting something out of it,” he says. “Obviously, there’s the rhythm and rhyme, but particularly in the days of punk rock, the thing was high energy. You looked at speeding everything up triple speed. And that became my trademark delivery for quite some time – what they call the machine-gun attack. And on certain numbers it still is … Why mess around with the mechanics?”

But what are those mechanics, specifically? How has he managed to forge a career out of – of all things – poetry?

“I wish I knew,” he says. “But I’m very superstitious about over-investigation. I refer you to Bill Withers, the great soul singer, because I’ve never heard it put better: the writing of songs involves a kind of magic that he didn’t want to interfere with. So, if there are any tricks, then I can’t know them, know what I mean?”

John Cooper Clarke, the Crystal Palace, Auckland, April 21; The Vic, Devonport, April 22; St Peters on Willis, Wellington, April 23; The Piano, Christchurch, April 24.

This article was first published in the February 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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