Dr John Cooper Clarke is a powerhouse of unforgettable comedic poetry.
In the world of poetry and lyricism Clarke is affectionately referred to as the ‘bard of Salford’, where he was born in 1949. His relatable, working-man persona has helped his work remain popular for decades. He originally rose to fame in the 70s as a performance poet and was a member of the Ferrets band but also toured as a solo figure with other performers. His punk style and proud embrace of traditional poetry forms helped him find a legion of followers. His distinct voice in his work often follows the topics of working class life, sports, relationships and love.
John has said he feels most at home when he’s performing his work as he’s a lover of sharing his work with a live crowd.
As a youth, he hoped to be able to make a career from poetry in one form or another. He “definitely saw a future in writing the jingles for adverts” and eventually his skills surpassed his hopes. Since 1976, public readings of his poetry has been his main source of income.
John is a unique performer who departs from the stereotypical image of the stuffy middle-classed poet. His sense of humour and wit makes him come across as very approachable. While studying poetry at school, John realised he didn’t enjoy the post-modern obsession with avoiding traditional forms and rhyme schemes. He loved melding his frank and funny subject matter with traditional poetry, albeit with a few changes here and there to suit his mood. Subsequently, he frequently captures off-colour humour and every day awkwardness in his song-like poetry.
I’ve found that John Cooper Clarke is one of those rare poets whose work I’d recognise anywhere. It’s half the delight in discovering his work. His work feels like a familiar friend writing you a quirky note to cheer you up on a gloomy day.
It’s often said that horror builds tension and comedy releases it and I feel lighter and comprehended after reading his work. His approach to comedy gives the impression that there are threads that move through our lives that we all experience regardless of our culture, age or gender etc. Because of this, I find myself diving into my copy of ‘Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt’ often when I need something to inspire absurdity and understanding out of me. This bestselling poetry collection originally came out in 1983 published by Arena Publishing and has remained consistently popular since it was first compiled.
Comedy is the way children are usually first introduced to poetry. The delight of rhyme and eccentric word-play is the thing that attracts people who will grow up to be songwriters, fiction writers, rappers and poets alike. Many poets feel the pressure to write devoid of humour once they get older. The pressure to ditch limericks and commit to sestinas and sonnets can be dreary. But John Cooper Clarke’s poetry helps us find the comedy in the everyday with a beautiful touch of recognisable poetry forms. He finds humour in tragedy and shared experiences.
Even with John’s popularity throughout the years, he doesn’t appear to take himself too seriously. He’s stated that his ability to make poetry his job was lucky and that: “Poetry, like all art, is useless. If no one wrote poetry again, the world wouldn’t change”. Despite his modesty, his impact on the poetry and music scene has been significant, as evidenced by the inclusion of his poetry in school syllabus programmes.
John admits that his poetry is directly influenced by his mood. Sometimes his poetry, though always well-crafted and lovable, is bordering on a childish sense of humour. At other times his works sways to adult themes of suicidal thoughts, drug usage and sex with a sardonic, tongue-in-cheek tone and an edge of bitterness lingering in the subtext.
In ‘health fanatic’, John addresses time and our tendency towards forgetting what is important. The ‘health fanatic’ is obsessed with fitness:
“beans greens and tangerines
and low cholesterol margarines
his limbs are loose his teeth are clean
he’s a high octane fresh-air fiend”.
This relatable issue of becoming preoccupied with one’s health is as relatable now as it was when it was written. The rhyme brings expert attention to the contrast between doing one’s best to control their health and falling short of expectations.
The hyperbole “a one-man war against decay” is so ridiculous that it draws attention to the impossibility of the man’s desire for perfection. Ultimately, the fanatic is losing sight of what is truly important. The poem ends with the line “he’s a health fanatic he makes you sick” which simultaneously addresses how irritating he appears to others – in a tongue-in-cheek tone. And what he’s doing to himself with his obsession. Ultimately, his behaviour becomes deeply ironic.
In the poem ‘i wanna be yours’, John is more light-hearted, frank and flirtatious. His poems, such as this one, have a sound reminiscent of a limerick with a distinct tone that is identifiably John’s signature style. His departure from rhyme toward the end reminds us that lyric and poetry writing are intertwined disciplines for John.
The poem starts with the didactic line:
“Let me be your vacuum cleaner
breathing in your dust
let me be your ford cortina
I will never rust” which catches you off-guard with its clever brashness.
At the same time, its endearing, how everlasting love is brought down to earth through the comparison to household objects. It makes the love John is describing tangible, exciting and real. His use of colloquial language is something John doesn’t shy away from. He compares his love to as “deep as the ocean / atlantic ocean / deep deep deep deep deep deep deep/ i don’t wanna be hers / i wanna be yours”. One of the exciting aspects of John’s poetry is how you can vicariously experience the fun he was having while writing his poem. His use of repetition is confident, fun and speech-like. Ultimately, it’s these features of his poetry that gives his work a mass appeal even to people who may not read poetry often.
The humour alone in John’s poetry is something that makes recalling phrases from his work a true pleasure.
In 2013, John was given an honorary doctorate of arts by the University of Salford in “acknowledgement of a career which has spanned five decades, bringing poetry to non-traditional audiences and influencing musicians and comedians” with his poetry. Today he still lives in Colchester, Essex with his second wife Evie and their daughter Stella. In his later life, he’s shown little sign of slowing down with his frequent radio and TV appearances including Desert Island Discs and 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown.
In 2020 he published an autobiography called I Wanna Be Yours. In a time where being divided by political and social ideologies has become as significant as it is today, comedy like John’s helps us find common ground with each other. Rather than just providing a temporary distraction for the stress of the everyday, John’s poetry identifies the little moments of comedy in everyone’s life and helps us identify ways we can build bridges with each other through the joy of life and laughing.