Heroes and Heroin
‘People can get entirely the wrong impression: “Poet” – you know, it’s a fellow that skips around with a butterfly net.’
So said John Cooper Clarke back in 1977. Clarke was the ‘punk poet’, the Bard of Salford, exploding every traditional notion of how poetry was meant to sound, and what it meant to be a poet. He recorded six albums (produced by Martin Hannett, who also worked with Joy Division), performed on the main stage at Glastonbury in 1982, and had a relationship with the musician Nico.
Clarke was a major figure in the performance poetry scene at this time, featuring alongside Linton Kwesi Johnson and Attila the Stockbroker in Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt, a film produced by Channel Four and the Arts Council in 1982. Eventually though he burnt out, struggling with a heroin addiction in the late 80s, and disappeared for a while (apart from recording an advert for Sugar Puffs in 1988 with the Honey Monster).
Performance poetry never completely went away, but it was certainly sidelined in the late 80s. The live music scene through which it originally grew became more orientated towards rave culture, with 1988 being the ecstasy-fuelled “second summer of love” – Clarke was out of place, Chatterton in a haze of heroin.
Now however, the medium seems to be back, stronger than ever.
Pish and Pah to the Performance Poetry Premise Proclaims Pre-eminent Poet
What is performance poetry? It’s a thorny issue. Indeed, Lemn Sissay is one of its most established practitioners – and poet in residence at London’s South Bank Centre – and he denies that the medium even exists. If ‘performance poetry’ exists as a separate art form, he argues, then what the hell do you call conventional poetry? Page poetry?
He has a point. Poetry has its roots in the spoken word, and even great poets of the ‘literary’ canon have written works that employ an authorial ‘voice.’ Consider John Donne for example. Furthermore, poetry since the 20th century has tended to abandon traditional forms and constraints, in favour of greater expression and a more conversational tone and style. Robert Lowell, or especially Alan Ginsberg, would go down well at an open mic night today.
‘Performance poetry’ then is nothing more than a loose name for a kind of style – a poem that lends itself to spoken, usually fast delivery in front of a room of people, who can generally be relied on to get most of it on first hearing. As such, most performance poets, (or shall we say, poets who write their poems intending to deliver them orally rather than on the page), tend to use humour and, most of the time, a consistent rhythm, which aids delivery and makes the work more legible for the audience.
In practice, there’s a very close relationship with stand up comedy. Partly this is practical – even people who don’t much like poetry will pay money to see an act described as “comedy” which includes a mixture of humorous songs, straight comedy and observational humour delivered in verse. Thus poets like Luke Wright have made a name for themselves in a growing niche between “poetry” and “comedy.” Even Clarke is touring again, but he rarely appears as a support act to punk musicians as he did in the 1970s – now he headlines at comedy clubs.
So, it’s performance poetry if you can stand to stand up and speak it. Beyond that – improvise.
Open mic night every Tuesday at the Poetry Society’s cafe near Covent Garden, London. 7.30pm (sign up between 6 and 7.)
Young female poet from London.
Originally from Portishead (yes, that Portishead) near Bristol, Tim Clare now tours and performs his poetry across the UK.
David J doesn’t just walk onto a stage, say hello, then read some poems. His whole presence is a performance. There is no David J standing on a stage versus David J reading a poem – just David J.
The original “poetry boyband,” consisting of four poets, most of the members of Aisle 16 now write and perform in various permutations, either with each other or with other poets, including Tim Clare. The website links to all of their individual projects.
 John Cooper Clarke, interview on So It Goes, Granada Television, 9/10/1977