Poetic License: The Love Song Of John Cooper Clarke

Poetic License: The Love Song Of John Cooper Clarke

The Salford bard on poetry, songwriting, and rum...

John Cooper Clarke is one of life’s true originals.

A bard of Salford, his counter-cultural viewpoint is pre-punk and post-punk, perhaps one of the few truly original talents to emerge from that era. A wordsmith and raconteur, his work reached a fresh generation when Arctic Monkeys opted to re-work his poem I Wanna Be Yours, resulting in a fresh, striking take on a beautifully witty paean to the absolute longing and devotion love can bring.

Right now, his current challenge is working alongside Kraken Rum on a Valentine’s Day poetry competition, urging young lovers and old drinks alike to pen their thoughts for a neat, snappy eight-liner.

“Well, try to make it rhyme. Mention flowers! These are the only two rules I can think of,” he says, his laughter bubbling down the telephone.

Clash has asked him for a few tips, and he’s slightly taken aback. “Seriously, though, getting an angle. People never run out of angles when it comes to matters of the heart. It’s no accident that most popular songs have to do with the trials and tribulations of romantic love.”

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Often caustic – his poem Evidently Chickentown makes resolute use of the word ‘fuck’ and it’s percussive onslaught – John Cooper Clarke has a real romantic streak, something he doesn’t shy away from.

“People have asked me this ever since I started in the poetry business,” he says. “People have been asking me if I consider myself to be a romantic. Obviously, that’s a very intelligent question because as we’ve ascertained here poetry is the very language of romance. And my answer is always the same: do I consider myself a romantic? To a sadistic degree! And that poem – ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ – proves it. So yes, I do consider myself a romantic.”

To outsiders, poetry can often seem a formidable realm, one occupied by earnest young men clutching moleskins while scribbling furiously in the far corners of university libraries. This is a notion John Cooper Clarke rejects outright, however, embracing the universal qualities of language.

“Do you know? I think this is an urban myth that nobody has had a go. It’s a very fashionable word ‘inclusive’ but what could be more inclusive? Another fashionable word: accessibility. What could be more accessible or inclusive than the manufacture of poetry.”

“Of all the art forms, I think that’s the one everybody has had a go at. You don’t need to buy any expensive oil paints, you don’t need dancing lessons, you don’t have to learn how to play an instrument, it’s the one thing that is at everybody’s fingertips. You can even be sub-literate and compose poetry, get a Dictaphone and do it phonetically. It is the most inclusive and welcoming of art forms. I imagine that everybody at some point has attempted to write a poem. It’s only a theory, I can’t prove it!”

This ultimately is what has driven John Cooper Clarke to get involved in this competition in the first place. “Whatever gets people at it!” he exclaims. “Why not a drink? They wouldn’t be the first people to write poetry without drinking. Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire come immediately to mind. Dylan Thomas. Show me a poet who never had a drink.”

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We’ve just moved passed Burn’s night, Clash offers, a poet who has a famous relationship with alcohol. “Don’t mention that!” he bellows in mock horror.

“It’s a sore point with me. Don’t mention Robert Burns. And I’ll tell you why – my birthday is on Burns Night. So I’m going to be overshadowed even beyond the grave by this philandering, Caledonian twat that has dogged my every poetical sub-step!”

“But it is written in stone, everybody knows it’s Burns night. It’s too late for him, I’m going to have to actually change my birthday. I can’t be over-shadowed beyond the grave by Robert Burns. At least people can understand my stuff!”

Indeed, one of the reasons so many people understand John Cooper Clarke’s work is that he’s such an engaging performer – he cuts an imposing figure, hair standing on, drainpipe jeans, and jet-black shades. A performance poet before performance poetry became recognised, he urges Clash to move this phrase to one side, to let him stand on his own.

“I think that you should always read poetry aloud. Even if it’s by somebody who’s been dead 200 years. If it’s in a book read it aloud. I believe that poetry is a phonetic medium, it’s better heard. It’s a kind of music. If it doesn’t sound good when you read it aloud, it’s because it isn’t any good. I’m hard and fast on this.”

“But the tragedy of this is that just because somebody can write poetry doesn’t mean that they are going to be any good at reciting it. I think you should hire one of our many unemployed actors. But poetry should always be heard, even if you’ve got to read it aloud yourself. I think that this performance poetry vs. the page thing is a false conflict for me. I’m not a performance poet – I recite my poetry. I’m not juggling with chainsaws on a tightrope or something… that would be a performance.”

“All I’m doing, really, is standing at a microphone, reciting my stuff, and telling a few gags. I don’t call it a performance, I call it a recital.”

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Yet John Cooper Clarke’s reputation is undoubtedly enhanced by his own performances – such as those Martin Hannett steered albums from the late 70s.

“It was never my idea,” he insists. “When I hear it now, I think it’s all very mixed. When it does work nobody is more surprised than I am. Mainly I prefer my stuff alone. But I would say that, wouldn’t I? I really like my stuff unadorned, just me and a microphone. Me, a PA, and the public.”

Music, he insists, is a completely different realm than poetry. “They’re a universe apart,” he says. “Music is shorthand, it’s emotional shorthand. When you take that out you have to provide the emotional backstory with words. It’s totally, absolutely different. Like Ernest Hemmingway used to say about sport- he used to say, all sport aspires to boxing. That is the perfect sport. The perfect competitive situation. And I would paraphrase the late Ernest Hemingway and say that all art aspires to poetry.”

Recently making an album with Hugh Cornwell as well as collecting his own work, John Cooper Clarke is currently in reflective mode, piecing together a book on his life.

“I’m in the middle of writing my memoirs! Plural. There’s more than one. And that’s what I shall be carrying on with when we stop this interview. They’re talking about bringing it out in October, and it’s going to be called I Wanna Be Yours.”

Judging by our conversation it will no doubt be fascinating – just don’t expect to hear it set to music any time soon.

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The Kraken Rumantics competition runs from February 3rd - 12th, with the legendary sea creature delivering the winning entries to our beastly bards via The Kraken’s Milk Floats on February 14th in London and Glasgow.

More information about the Rumantics Milk Floats will be unveiled on The League of Darkness.

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