Is Poetry the new Comedy/Black/Slash/Whatever?

By Monkey Poet

“What do you do?”

“I’m a poet…”

“I mean to put food on the table.”

“I poet.”


I’ve had this conversation so many times over the last five years, I stopped counting at ‘hundreds’. However, due to the current resurgence in Poetry’s popularity, with John Cooper-Clarke doing Arenas, Tim Minchin’s beat epic Storm, Kate Tempest on the cover of the New York Times, Holly McNish in the Guardian…no wonder the earthy colloquial response of “eff off!” I used to get has shifted to a thoughtful nod of understanding. Poetry’s been bubbling up nicely over the last ten years, now it looks like it could boil over.

They say in sales, what’s the USP? (Unique Selling Point to those with lives, sales was my life before I jumped ship to float/drown in the verbiage sea). Well, Poetry’s USP is a bit like paintings, in the way that it’s uniquely accessible to all. You need canvas, paint, then throw one at the other and its a painting. No argument. Likewise with poetry; words, page. You don’t need grammar, don’t have to use proper sentences, don’t have to have character arc’s or narrative drives, it can be as long or as short as you want. You don’t even have to spell correctly or at all, you can substitute “2” for “to” like Linton Kwesi Johnson and Billy Childish. Or you can do all of those things and more. In other words, you can do whatever the f**k you want and call it a poem at the end. That’s pretty unique. Easier than writing a novel anyway!

The last bout of financial hardship brought us ‘Alternative Comedy’ in the form of stand up, when we shifted from “3 men walk in a …” jokes to individual material and thought processes, social comment and commentary. The comedian as society’s pressure valve. I always think of Bill Hick’s line about the army in Iraq “Do you know how much fun they were having out there, man?” and following revelation after horrific revelation, he’s proven at once, hysterical and alarmingly accurate.

This latest bout of imposed austerity could leave poetry incredibly well placed. Since the 80’s the cult of the individual has grown, and enmeshed into the fabric of our lives to the point where people even want to enjoy their jobs!!!! I feel this is a natural progression, Humankind going from a pantheon of Gods, to ‘a’ God, to ‘we’ are all God and this is ‘my story’. And what is more personal than poetry?

That’s also a double-edged sword. The usual fear that attends first time audiences is that of poetry as therapy. The nightmare scenario is that of a young fella onstage, trembling with emotion, beginning to read out ‘This is for my Girlfr…erm, my Ex-Girlfriend. It’s called “JANICE!!! WHY!!!!!!!” before breaking down into tears as people stare on, wide-eyed and rigidly British.

Well, poetry ain’t that….

It’s revealing itself to be amusing, pithy, blessed with thoughtful understanding, and able to cover a wider variety of topics than comedy. A mate of mine, a working comic of 20 years standing, saw my show at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe and couldn’t believe the stuff I talked about. “You couldn’t do that on the comedy circuit,” he said simply, “you’d never get away with it.”

“Ah” I countered “but Jim Jeffries does that kind of stuff.”

“Only when he was THE Jim Jeffries, he couldn’t do that on the circuit. He’d never have been booked.”

Having alienated more than a couple of audiences, I see his point!

Actually, I’ve found comedy clubs on the whole to be less averse to risk than theatre audiences. I write this on my way to the Bath Comedy Festival to perform my double bill show. The first half is a solo one-act play about a young boy re-enacting the blood’n’biceps film 300 in his bedroom to the ghosts of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, dead homosexual poets from the First World War. That’s followed by my brand of “stand-up poetry”. A term coined in San Francisco in the 60’s that suits what I do down to the ground. The first half plays very well, then the second half is poetry. When I start I announce “Give us a shout if you love poetry!” and you can feel the nervous energy in the room. The trick here is to dissipate the tension, get the audience over their reticence and fully onside, under the umbrella of love so to speak. I do this by opening with a poem about me shooting an 8 month old baby…works every time.

This year I’ve also been programming the PBH FreeFringe’s spoken word section for Edinburgh, and the wealth of talent is growing considerably. We’ve gone from 12 shows to over 60 in 5 years. And the audiences have grown with us. Poetry really could be the new comedy/black/slash/whatever.

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