The first time I came across John Cooper Clarke was when I heard him.
I didn’t even hear him in the conventional sense – I was sitting, legs crossed on the edge of the bed, engrossed in Anton Corbin’s Joy Division film ‘Control’. I was, in effect, an outsider staring in on a tumultuous culture. Perhaps that was why John Cooper Clarke’s words appealed so much to me. The film gives him a brief appearance: an enigmatic figure in drainpipe trousers, his lips barely moving under the artillery of his words – ‘The fucking flats have fucking rats’. It was my first experience of one his most well-known pieces, Evidently Chickentown. It is a piece which appeals very much to the outsider, looking in – ‘you’re fucking lost, you’re fucking found’ come Clarke’s clipped syllables – speaking of those experiences of angst, of feeling both inside and out of the monotony of the day. This duality seems to be a key theme of his work; after all, he is a man who describes himself as ‘straddling the twin holds of art and showbiz, where a certain scale aesthetic is half the point’. He is a poet of words and of appearances. He writes about insiders and outsiders. He is heard in voice and read on paper. In this light, I feel my first experience of his work highlighted its power– dragged through a variety of mediums: a screen, speakers but with words still kicking.
So the question is – are these words still alive and hitting in the written form? After a largely auditory experience of Clarke and everything that accompanies this work – the delivery, the deportment, the resurrected punk poise over the microphone – one may approach the written form of his work Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt with a certain level of scepticism. However, as Shakespeare is appreciated upon the page as well as on stage, the self-acclaimed ‘Bard of Salford’ can be also. The substantial collection opens with the title poem ten years in an open necked shirt – a narrative piece which rasps with the end announcement: ’John Cooper Clarke: the name behind the hairstyle, the words walk in the grooves hacking through the hi-fi paradise of true luxury.’ The gentle alliteration of ‘words walk’ bluntly challenges the harshness of ‘hacking’ at such a close proximity. For that is John Cooper Clarke’s great skill – slipping into the audience’s immediate proximity and challenging them, whether in written or spoken form. In trying to even write about his poems through Microsoft Office, the spellcheck wavers over the challenge posed even by the titles – the lack of capitalisation of the personal pronoun ‘i’. In this writing, Cooper Clarke is not only making statements but making a statement.
Is it the anti-authoritarian statements of the punk movement? A statement of an outsider mocking those within? Not necessarily – it could even be seen that Cooper Clarke’s decision to publish his work in print form admits to a certain kind of enclosure. However, whilst print may offer enclosure, the content of it offers disclosure – a striking duality which is perhaps Cooper Clarke’s statement in itself. As we see in the early piece A distant relation, Clarke calls on familiar themes of isolation and distance, only to juxtapose them with the repeated refrain: ‘This is a family affair’. In this light, Clarke gets under the skin of our social living, spinning his words in portrayal of its paradoxes… He writes not just as a man from the North-West of England, but as a bitter onlooker, a fame-filled high-riser, a drug drenched lover – having famously cohabited with Nico for a number of years in the 1980s. It is bizarre to think that Cooper Clarke is approaching his seventies now, but age is just a perspective.
And Cooper Clarke captures a multiplicity of perspectives. Considering that he is primarily a performance poet, it can be argued that seeing his work in its hard, written form also adds to this multiplicity he explores. Publishing such a collection provided Clarke with the opportunity of arrangement, and this appears skilfully done as he juxtaposes the bizarre gaberdine angus against the immediately relatable i don’t want to be nice. It is here one really notices how Clarke is a performer – not just in an oratory sense, but in the evident thought involved in the positioning of words on the page. The lack of capitalisation in ‘i don’t want to be nice’ dredges the title with a delicious childhood defiance we can all relate to. It is in the written form that the truth behind Clarke’s words can be felt, staring up at us in the form of our own guilty admissions. When watching Clarke perform his verse it is easy to pretend it is all an act, something to which we are a spectator. The poems on paper could be seen to strip us of that.
In fact, Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt seems to take the art of stripping very seriously. If you had been in ‘an open neck shirt’ for ten years, wouldn’t you? But it is not just the action of Cooper Clarke peeling away the sordid shirt of the ordinary man, so to speak, but also the pulling back the artificialities of character to reveal the depths beneath. The middle of the collection is crammed with personas, each in a various state of undress – the post war glamour girl, the full-time loser, the it-man. Arranged like this, the adjectives modifying these people are immediately noticeable, like add-ons to our own identities. Take the ‘post-war glamour girl’ for instance; ‘her rosary beads are really bones’. Cooper Clarke here reiterates on themes of duality and identity, conjuring up imagery of the naked truth: we are all performers. Just as Cooper Clarke is a performer of poetry, people are performers of life, and this is made evident in experiencing the poetry in its written form. The paper is a performer, and Cooper Clarke adorns it with some of the wildest words.
And the words keep kicking. And it hurts. ‘evidently chickentown’, rather than being the foot in the door for the collection, is slipped into the middle, the memorable lines inviting that peculiar pain to the iris: a sensation one never knows is closer to laughter or tears. This feeling runs until the very close of the collection with the piece ‘Night People’. The title in itself expresses an indeterminacy, and that perhaps is Cooper Clare’s point – there is no point, words can’t hold anything down. But what Cooper Clarke’s words do is capture it, scraping that layer of tragicomedy from the surface of the ordinary. You may laugh at the simple rhyme of the lines ‘I like the nightlife… give me danger/I had a nice wife… she was a stranger’. But as with many of Cooper Clarke’s poems, especially evident in their written form, there is a duality which packs a punch whilst simultaneously kicking us where it hurts.
Jeremy Paxman recently criticized modern poetry that ‘connived at its own irrelevance’; poetry that failed to communicate with the common man. I would suggest that he seeks the antidote within the works of Cooper Clarke. Performance poets are often under-valued artists, and – to use the term Cooper Clarke has – are often seen as ‘straddling’ the boundaries between performance and print, music and speech. The publication of Cooper Clarke’s collection of verse proves that bouncing on the boundaries still continues. The old tapping feet have got a long life left in them yet.
Like I said, the first time I came across John Cooper Clarke was when I heard him, and I still hear him now – the whole performance and then some, through the printed form itself. The last poem Night People with its ‘arms raving arms’ seems to summarise its own applause – the applause of a work which does not shy away from highlighting the hysterical, hilarious and horrific dual nature of humanity. And applause it certainly deserves.
Photo credit: flickr_newbie (John Cooper Clarke) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons