While I generally don’t have too much bad to say about the education system I went through, there was one thing throughout my studying of English that they never quite managed to transmit – that poetry really is at its best when read aloud.
Certainly some poetry is a written medium with clever use of form, style and language to make its point, but, much like music, the stuff that really grips me is the performed sort… So enter ‘The Bard of Salford’, Dr. John Cooper Clarke.
First published in 1983, his debut printed collection Ten Years In An Open Necked Shirt takes the cream of Clarke’s early work, from his days as a pioneering ‘punk poet’ and captures them in text.
While it’s clear throughout that this stuff was written to be read out loud and, even better, performed, if read with Clarke’s harsh, biting accent in mind it works just as well on the page as beat and bop meet punk and pop in a surreal satire of life in northern England in the 1960s and 70s that, in many ways, still rings true today.
Supporting punk bands in the late 1970s, as he came too early for the alternative comedy movement he no doubt helped inspire, gave Clarke’s writing a certain political position but, in reading it, it is vividly apolitical. In this it allows the reader to get an image in their mind and, at times, create a political context for it of their own, while at other times simply get lost in a flight of surreal fantasy that captures an aspect of the popular culture of the time.
A couple of specific examples of this could be the triumphant Beezley Street which presents the feel of a hellish nightmare (but probably more realistic) version of (long running soap opera) Coronation Street and it’s sort of opposite Kung-Fu International, obviously capturing the early 70s kung-fu trend through Clarke’s harsh, street level filter.
Throughout things move from bleak to hilarious, often within a verse or stanza, let alone from poem to poem, but all come with a feeling of something that could only have emerged when it did – with The Goons and Spike Milligan clearly as much of an influence as Ginsberg or Kerouac, or Rotten, Vanian, et al.
Along with Clarke’s words the book features some great illustrations by Steve Maguire that work in a similar way to Ralph Steadman’s work with Hunter S. Thompson, though in a less brutally graphic way, but they too capture the mix of surrealism with intense social realism that is a hall-mark of the collection as a whole.
Unlike later punk poets (a trend that really took off in the 1980s) John Cooper Clarke is not a posturing and ranting presence, though he no doubt inspired those and they have their place in the form, but a remote observer. In reading his words you get the feeling he’s been there and done that but this is the view of it from the outside, through those ever-present dark glasses, and in that he timelessly captures life in a way any other media or style couldn’t quite manage.