Interview '“ John Cooper Clarke: Rebel without a pause

John Cooper Clarke has gone from being a punk poet in the 70s, to a national treasure whose work has been taught in schools. Duncan Seaman caught up with him.

Dr John Cooper Clarke has just had his first book of poems published in 30 years.
Dr John Cooper Clarke has just had his first book of poems published in 30 years.

More than three decades have passed since John Cooper Clarke last had a book of his poetry published. In the ensuing years the ‘Bard of Salford’ has gone from being regarded as one of the most singular figures to emerge from the Mancunian punk scene to something of a national treasure, whose work has even been included in the GCSE syllabus.

This month he finally returns to print, with a new collection titled The Luckiest Guy Alive. Containing 40 poems and six haikus, it amply demonstrates that at 69 years old, Cooper Clarke’s scabrous wit and vivid way with words remains untamed.

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He still sees performance – which he’s turned into an art since the late 1970s – as essential to the development of the poems themselves. “Absolutely, 100 per cent, I go by what a poem sounds like, every time.

Dr John Cooper Clarke on stage.

“I’m not alone in this,” he adds wryly, “so did Shakespeare. There the comparisons end.”

Nonetheless he clearly loves seeing his work gathered in one volume. “I’m the Number One mass literacy advocate, so the fact it’s in a book is terrific for obvious reasons. Now children can learn them off-by-heart in school, Mr Gove-style – that’s how I got the bug.”

There’s something to cherish in the permanence of print, a thought that the work itself will outlast us all. “It sneaks up on you, poetry,” he reflects. “A line becomes clear to you 30 years afterwards. That’s how poetry works, really – it’s a matter of haunting people for their entire life. Not to the exclusion of all else – you’ve got to get perspective.”

Cooper Clarke may have said in the past that he didn’t think of his verse as particularly topical, but poems in this book, such as Bed Blocker Blues and Crossing The Floor – about gender identity – hint that he’s not totally immune to issues of the day. His writing, he agrees, is guided by a desire to communicate his thoughts on our shared humanity.

“Those two examples are comparatively topical but if I’m ever topical it’s kind of accidental,” he says, chuckling. “I’m not an issue-led artist. Some people do it very well but I’m more involved in the eternal things – as they are manifest in modern life.”

He says he found his voice as a poet when he was “about 12”. He was quickly hooked by “being good at it” and also, he says: “For one year we had a poetry teacher called John Malone. My memories of school were hideous, I hated every second of it. He was a rose in a garden of weeds in the way he conveyed his love of 19th century Romantic poetry. He conveyed his enthusiasm to a whole class of trainee criminals. It was a rough school – put it this way, we had our own coroner.”

While he might not be inclined to consider too much the effect that growing up in working-class Salford in the 1950s and 60s had on his poetry – “Who’s to say? You can only live one life at a time” – he says: “I’ve never been what you could call a ‘rootsy’ kind of person. For instance, when I determined to become a professional poet it always seemed to me that I would have to move to London. Any success I was going to have would come via the capital. It was the way things were in the 50s – and probably still are. People making a living out of being artistic – there wasn’t any evidence of it in Manchester – whereas one heard about the ‘Chelsea set’ and people like Harold Pinter – this is the world I envisaged entering as a lad.” He laughs loudly at the idea. “It didn’t turn out quite that way but you know, maybe better.”

Poetry for the young Cooper Clarke was not something to be read quietly in a corner and reflected upon. “It was always a phonetic medium, every time. That’s why learning it Michael Gove-style, which is what we had to do, 25 pages of The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson, it was a compendium, unbelievably long, but we had to memorise the whole thing and were often called upon to stand up and recite Verse Three to the rest of the class from memory. That brought home the fact that poetry should be heard first.

“You could be more or less convincing in the way that you declaim it – that was a lesson learnt at 12 years old in the classroom. That and literacy itself were probably the reason for going to school. Actually, the only reason I went to school was because my mum told me she would be thrown into prison if I didn’t go.”

In the 60s Cooper Clarke was a Mod, obsessed with American culture. “Everything you wanted was from there,” he says today. “Your vision of a better society was there. It was a Hollywood vision. There were certain films, especially in the 50s – Tom and Jerry cartoons featuring gigantic pop-up toasters and fridges bigger than a person full of succulent chicken and delicious foods. A land of colour and plenty, it was terrific to see that as a kid. All zooming in on consumer durables available in the States. That and Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin movies.

“The guy that really was the window-dresser for America in the 50s for me was a film director called Frank Tashlin, he had a really garish palette, he directed The Girl Can’t Help It, the first Technicolor rock ’n’ roll movie. Everything you wanted was from America – cars, candy bars, rock ’n’ roll. Elvis!”

When he looks at America now, he says: “It’ll still the same place, for better or worse. It’s the freest country in the world. If you don’t like it that’s because people are like that, they moan about it. In fact in any democracy really everybody gets the government they deserve – and free speech applies especially to the person you don’t agree with.”

The humour in Cooper Clarke’s poems emerged early on as a means of self-defence against the sometimes restless audiences in working men’s clubs and punk venues. “You had to really tighten up your game in those places. Your main enemy as a poet is indifference, not hostility. Somebody’s going to take notice if you’re generating a level of animosity because a certain amount of that crowd are going to think ‘What’s winding these people up so much?’ and you’ll make a few fans like that because it’s a kind of adversarial shidash and you can get some mileage out of that. But the worst thing a poet can have is indifference, because if people ain’t interested it’s not a matter of throwing rotten fruit, you’ll have this indifferent hum.

“That is the worst it could possibly get and that was more likely to happen in the working men’s clubs than anywhere else. That’s really how you learn your chops. Nobody held a gun to my head, it was my idea to drag my poetry into the world of showbusiness. It was a big help to start off the hard way, it’s a good way of doing it. It worked out for me.”

The Luckiest Man Alive is published by Pan MacMillan, £14.99. John Cooper Clarke performs at O2 Academy Leeds on November 17, York Grand Opera House on February 23, and The Octagon Centre, Sheffield, on March 7.