Punk, in its myriad manifestations since the late 1970s, has had its own aspirations to being an art movement, whether through the music form itself or through film, performance art or even fiction. It is perhaps surprising then that the conceptualization of a ‘punk poetry’ has been so little addressed, insofar as ‘poetry has not been an art form associated with the punk movement’ (Hannon 2020: 1). The example of John Cooper Clarke’s writing both reinforces and subverts this generalization, in Cooper Clarke being at once a kind of ‘poet Laureate’ for the punk movement while remaining wholly outside contemporary acceptable norms for what constitutes poetry in specialized journals and magazines.
What then might this specific punk poetry help to reveal about our contemporary understanding of what poetry is, or could become? The specificity derives from the origins of Manchester punk music and art which stemmed effectively from one seminal event; the visit in summer 1976 by the Sex Pistols to the Lesser Free Trade Hall (Boon 2015: 2). From this one legendary concert developed bands (Buzzcocks, Joy Division, The Fall etc.), fanzines, designers (for example, Linder Sterling), photography (for example, New Musical Express' Kevin Cummins) as well as a host of clubs such as The Hacienda. Bernard Manning, the working-class comedian was the opening act of the latter, an example of a heterodoxy (as well as a sardonic harshness) at the heart of this Northern / Mancunian vision. Cooper Clarke’s poetry is a kind of matrix of these connections, articulating in verse and rhyme what other contemporaries expressed through other channels. There is also something of the wannabe comic in this poetry, with the constant inter-mixing of verse, gags and ribald anecdotes. Cooper Clarke had himself been around since the late 1960s and had honed his spoken word diatribes in the same prole venues as Manning, only then to latch onto the emergent punk movement as a younger and more appreciative audience for his performances.
The residual unease about connecting punk to poetry tells us something about the cultural significance and perception of what poetry is for the vast majority of the population. In this latter view, poetry (of all the arts) remains at a safe distance from the ups and downs of cultural and political production in the everyday world. In this, we can say that (for the most part) poetry still claims to be a high art. Taking a typical dictionary definition, ‘poetry is the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative or elevated thoughts’ (our emphasis). Moreover, this separation is maintained by the kind of poetry which privileges formalism, and this formal art is thus inaccessible to those who don’t understand (or haven’t been educated into) the rules of this particular metrical aesthetic. In recent times, this view of poetry has been challenged by a new generation of performance poets who precisely seek to develop a poetics which is rooted in the vernacular and in the everyday. At the same time, this new generation have been critiqued from the vantage point of the established poetry as being ‘not proper poetry’ or merely song lyrics or formless verse (and therefore weak on traditional or modernist terms).
The recent hoo-ha concerning the horizons of contemporary poetry which developed from Rebecca Watts' critique in PN Review of performance poets is instructive in understanding this debate, as well as the particulars of Cooper Clarke’s poetics. The harsh critique which Watts applies to, for example, Hollie McNish’s writings might equally be relevant to Cooper Clarke’s poetry: ‘a slapdash assembly of words’, ‘an open denigration of intellectual engagement’, ‘a rejection of craft’ (Watts 2018). Cooper Clarke goes even further than McNish in rejecting free verse (for example, of the Beats) and defending the use of end rhymes.
Despite all this, however, it is difficult to agree with Watts that (by extension) this is not poetry. Ben Lerner in his The Hatred of Poetry (Lerner 2016) quotes in toto the short text by Marianne Moore, entitled ‘Poetry’; ‘I, too, dislike it. Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in it, after all, a place for the genuine’. (quoted Lerner 2016: 7). This seems a more generous, but also a more socially accurate, horizon for an understanding of what poetry might be or what it can be or what various types of multiple writing genres might suitably come under its banner. As Lerner notes, ‘many more people agree they hate poetry than can agree what poetry is’ (Lerner 2016: 10).
In ‘Ten Years In An Open Necked Shirt’, the character Lenny Siberia is ‘left alone with the one thing money can’t buy: poverty’ (Cooper Clarke 2012: 7). This text itself which opens the book is written as a narrative and although it obeys the prose rather than the verse line break, seems more of a ‘prose-poem’ than anything else. A prose poem with some gags thrown in, probably borrowed from Manning. Already, a complex question of form emerges that belies Watt’s over-simplified critique of what constitutes proper poetics or even the limits of form as such. In ‘I Don’t Wanna Be Nice’ (Cooper Clarke 2012), ‘a friend in need is a friend in debt’. As Paul Simonon (from The Clash) has it, Cooper Clarke is here ‘spilling out the joys and sorrows of the human experience’ (Simonon 2015). This second text also reappears as a version in song with musical accompaniment, this latter actually reaching Top of the Pops as a performance. We might agree with Watts that some aspects of this work indeed demonstrate a kind of ‘denigration of intellectual engagement’, but we might also say that this paradoxically is quite an intelligent denigration in its own right, an all too knowing faux-naivete. If there is a ‘refusal of craft’ here, then simultaneously it is a fairly crafty refusal. And let’s face it, Watts hasn’t a hope in hell of ever getting her venerable poetry on TOTP.