Time was, poetic stereotypes puncturing the mainstream were all romantic cliché. Keats and Byron look-alikes moping and yearning for unrequited loves in frock coats, living in garrets and expiring of consumption, that sort of thing. Well, either that or all Left Bank intellectual, a la Modernist poster boys Ezra Pound and T.S.Eliot, through to moody and brooding Ted Hughes, the Iron Man forever entwined with the Hollywood-worthy tragi-lit-romance with the suicidal twin-set and pearls word-smith, Sylvia Plath. Hitting the household name headlines in more recent times we’ve had the first female laureate Carol Ann Duffy, the brittle Northern denim and trainers aesthetic of Simon Armitage. The latter has stayed just the right side of hip since the release of his debut collection Zoom in 1989 by championing fellow Yorkshireman Alex Turner, whose swaggering lyrical dexterity brought the Arctic Monkeys critical as well as popular acclaim with that paean to Saturday night couplings, ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dance floor.’
But it was in 1976 when the literary landscape was really shaken up by the arrival of the shambolically razor-tongued Bard of Salford, John Cooper Clarke. Dovetailing haphazardly with the riotous birth of the Punk movement, Clarke achieved cult status supporting luminaries The Sex Pistols and Joy Division, and taking poetry to places most poets wouldn’t take a train. Cutting a dash in drainpipe trousers he was and remains a spindly, androgynous figure, strutting about the stage on Cuban heels with a rock star charisma, complete with artfully dishevelled barnet. His material takes in the political and satirical spheres alongside the mundane and surreal; whether the subject be ‘Euro Communist/ Gucci Socialist’ or ‘(I Married A) Monster From Outer Space’, the writing and delivery are bitingly irreverent, laugh out loud witty and sometimes just plain daft. By honing his craft on the live music circuit rather than any refined spoken word salon-scene, Clarke was simultaneously reigniting a neglected oral tradition of sharing poetry aloud and en masse that dates back to innumerable folk tales, whilst being achingly of the moment.
However, by the 1980s this rollicking success was blighted by Punk’s demise, whilst Clarke himself was in the grip of a crippling heroin addiction. This unlikely man of letters seemed forever consigned to my Stepfather’s dusty vinyl collection, his New Year’s Eve part piece. But fashion being what it is, the reading, listening and thinking public’s appetite for the retro is nigh on insatiable, and within two decades the pendulum had swung back to Punk- by which time John Cooper Clarke’s ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ had made its way into my GCSE poetry anthology and doubtless won teenage hearts and minds across the nation.
Fast forward ten years and a new generation of rhymesters have been heralded as the resurgence of performance poetry- and once again the readings (or ‘slams’ as they are now known), are not confined to the bookshop but are down and dirty in the pub, the club, the street, the field. Luke Wright, founder of poetry collective Aisle 16, co-programmer of the Poetry Arena at the Latitude Festival and purveyor of the kind of fast-paced, observational, visceral verses that owe more to stand up than oratory, also cites Clarke as a major influence. Essex-born Wright confesses that he was ‘totally blown away’ by the old school writer’s appearance at Colchester Arts Centre when he was ‘about 16,’ chiefly because his poems ‘were funny and written about a world I lived in.’ An unpretentious, accessible, disarmingly honest style unites the otherwise disparate output of the new crop of Young British Poets. Aisle 16 is itself a motley crew, among them Swansea success story Joe Dunthorne whose Bildungsroman debut Submarine is currently in pre-production for Warp Films, and the charmingly self-deprecating John Osborne, author of Radio Head– a Radio 4 Book of the Week that was born out of temp job hell.
For those literary ladies amongst you who are starting to sense that this is all an unreconstructed boys’ club, fear not, as Dockers MC AKA Laura Dockerill, Brixton-born Brit School grad and best mate of pearly queen of pop Kate Nash is also making a noise with her inimitable gift of the gab. With literary cabaret in the form of Homework and the infamous Literary Death Match taking East London by storm, there’s no sign of poetry retreating to the library, pale and angst ridden, in bad shoes.