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Punk poet past and present

So last night I caught a BBC documentary, part of the ‘Punk Britannia’ season, on John Cooper Clarke.

Back in the 1970s he was a surreal figure, a tall stick-thin guy with long hair that looked, literally, as if he’d been dragged through a hedge. He’d turn up at punk gigs and rant poetry at six hundred words a minute (or thereabouts) at the audience. They expected head-banging, pogoing music and got head-banging, pogoing verse.

He disappeared from public view through much of the 1980s and 1990s (yes, drugs had a lot to do with that) but he’s still around, still performing, and still has a nervous energy and bite that make him, if not a national treasure, then still a wonderful cultural icon.

He wasn’t the only punk poet of that era. I remember another who went under the name ‘Conan the Librarian’ – though if you google that name, there’s no longer any trace. There’s a comedy film of that name and, as far as I can see, several librarians who use the nickname, but no punk performance poets. So maybe Cooper Clarke is the last one standing?

If you’re interested, he has a website, including a bunch of his poems and a list of upcoming gigs. There’s also a Wikipedia page, and the show itself is on the BBC iPlayer (‘Evidently… John Cooper Clarke’) for 6 more days (if you live somewhere where you can access it). After that… well, it’ll probably still be around. Try googling it.

One final thought, just a little comment that came from early on in the documentary. Where did his inspiration come from? Which radical firebrand unleashed his voice? What revolutionary literature fired him up? Answers: one talented teacher, and Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. Who’d have thought?

(Notes to American readers: if you look at the documentary and Youtube clips, etc., you may find Cooper Clarke’s regional accent – Salford, near Manchester – difficult to follow at the speed he performs. But you can still read his work. And yes, I know you have your own punk poets like Henry Rollins, musician turned poet and many other things besides. And yes, he’s good. But it’s not the same style at all…)

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