Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Performance poetry future is in good hands with Luke Wright

Poet Luke Wright

Poet Luke Wright - Credit: Gregg Brown

I was at a Poetry Wivenhoe event the other evening, writes Martin Newell.

It’s rare these days for me to attend poetry readings. I can’t say that I dislike modern poetry but in common with much of the public, I often find it ‘difficult’. People might be surprised to discover, however, that the county of Essex, despite metropolitan sneers, has produced, or become home to some of the UK’s best performance poets.

The headlining poet whom I went to see was Luke Wright. He was shockingly good. It made me think that it’s a good thing that he wasn’t around 25 years ago when John Cooper Clarke, Attila the Stockbroker and I were all out there playing People’s Poet. Luke would probably have put us all out of business. Luckily, he was only nine years old at the time.

I don’t want to get into that old Performance Poetry versus the Establishment stuff here. That particular war has gone on far too long and the only losers, so far, have been the public. Last week a One Poll survey stated “our engagement with poetry is in decline”. That is to say that we British, once a literary lions’ den, no longer know our Shakespeare from Shinola.

One survey result revealed an 85% failure to separate quotes by Kanye West and Jay-Z from those of Aristotle and Lucretius. I have to admit here, that apart from one Aristotle quote, I’m with the dumbos here. Can we blame the poor public, though, for not being interested in poetry?

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At one extreme we have our urban warriors: large chaps wearing expensive sports clothes, hopping about in front of beat boxes, effing and jeffing about ‘’popping a cap into some mutha’s aaass’. At the other end, there’s some dork with an MA in Scandinavian poetry, minnying around in an austere performance space, mumbling into his jumper about the new ‘wild writing’.

Quite honestly, I sometimes feel like grabbing one of them by the lapels and shouting: “I’ve had it up to here with Finnish poetry and the plight of the bee-wolf wasp. Haven’t you got a nice verse about unrequited love or something?”

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When I first became a performance poet, Ronald Blythe told me: “Poets reach down to other, unborn poets.” How right he was. Sometimes too, they hand the work on, like a relay baton, to younger poets. John Cooper Clarke, early in his career, was complimented and encouraged by the Yorkshire chansonnier, Jake Thackray. I still treasure a letter which Roger McGough sent me when I was starting out as a performer.

The performance poetry world harbours little of the rancour and jealousy of wider showbiz. The training, such as it is, can be surprisingly old-fashioned in its way – they tie the young dogs to the older dogs, like Cumbrian farmers sometimes did, when training border collies. The younger poets watch - and they learn. Then they nick your clothes, your moves, your aftershave, your cheap stage tricks and sometimes, your lines.

But they never forget you. Poetry, you see, unlike certain other art forms can be a suit of clothes for all ages. But you can’t be an effete, doomed young dandy for all of your life. There comes a time to move over, firstly to the role of grizzled veteran and finally, to that of elder statesman.

Young Luke Wright came to one of my (very rare) songwriting sessions in 1997. He was a 15-year-old Coggeshall boy, attired in big floppy jeans and matching hair. He’d wanted to be in Blur really but he was too young and they already had Damon Albarn. A few months earlier, I’d met Ross Sutherland, another Coggeshall teenager who’d won a support slot with Clarke and me at a Christmas gig. Oddly enough, Luke and Ross, although both aspiring poets from Coggeshall hadn’t previously met. Not long afterwards they were studying together at the University of East Anglia. There the two of them began publishing poetry, performing it and running events.

Luke booked John Cooper Clarke and me - and paid us. That’s when I knew he was serious. Back in Colchester, he and Ross returned for a gig at Colchester’s Minories’ garden. They were ticked off for being too loud and sweary. Tut-tut. Young Byrons, hey?

Nearly 19 years after I first met him, Luke Wright, now 34 and married with two children, runs the poetry stage at the Latitude Festival. He even books me and Clarke occasionally. This is the poetry world’s equivalent of growing up and taking your dad down the pub for a pint.

Luke is now such a shameless tart, however, that he has his stagewear tailored for him. This is quite unlike Newell and Clarke, who still aren’t above trawling for their clobber at Colchester Cat Rescue. When I point out to Clarke the sheer extent of Luke’s current foppery, John merely raises his eyebrows; like Keith Richards might do upon observing Pete Doherty.

The thing is, that the other evening, I watched young Luke play to a packed and fairly discerning Essex audience. He tore the place apart. By turns he was funny, moving and so slick, that it was, as I mentioned earlier, shocking. I was, of course, vicariously proud of him. Because one day, John and I won’t be around and it’s nice to think that Luke and his contemporaries will be entertaining a public who previously didn’t think that they much liked poetry.

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