The great poetry performers

From John Cooper Clarke to Kae Tempest: these are the poets you need to hear as well as read.

Ever open a book of poetry and find yourself reading aloud? Many would argue poetry is best enjoyed, and understood, when spoken, and there are some poets who truly excel at live performance. Here are some of our favourites – and if you can't catch them in person, take a listen to the audio editions of their work.

For more poetic inspiration, have a look at our list of the best poetry books.

John Cooper Clarke

John Cooper Clarke shot to prominence in the 1970s as the original ‘people’s poet’, renowned for his live shows. He's performed with the likes of Joy Division, The Sex Pistols and The Clash, and The Arctic Monkeys set one of his most well known poems, 'I Wanna Be Yours,' to music on their album AM.


by John Cooper Clarke

This uproarious new collection is reminder, if we needed one, of why John Cooper Clarke is one of Britain's most beloved writers and performers. James Brown, John F. Kennedy, Jesus Christ: nobody is safe from the punk rocker's acerbic pen – and that's just the first poem.

Hear John read his new work: get the audiobook here.

The Luckiest Guy Alive

by John Cooper Clarke

You'll find 'I Wrote the Songs' in collection The Luckiest Guy Alive which, on release, was the first new book of poetry from Cooper Clarke for several decades. From the ‘Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman’ to a hymn to the seductive properties of the pie – by way of hand-grenade haikus, machine-gun ballads and a meditation on the loss of Bono’s leather pants – The Luckiest Guy Alive collects stunning set pieces and tried-and-tested audience favourites. 

John also reads the audio edition of this collection, which you can find here.

Kae Tempest

Kae Tempest is a poet, lyricist, performer and recording artist. Their work includes the Mercury Music Prize-nominated Let Them Eat Chaos and the Ted Hughes Award-winning narrative poem Brand New Ancients. 

Divisible by Itself and One

by Kae Tempest

Ruminative, wise, with a newer, more contemplative and metaphysical note running through, this is a book engaged with the big questions and the emotional states in which we live and create. Taking its bearings – and title – from prime numbers, Divisible by Itself and One is concerned, ultimately, with integrity: how to live in honest relationship with oneself and others.

Kae reads the audio version of this collection: get it here.

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'Through the artifice of putting words into those rhythms and into that metre, you create a different kind of truth': Kae Tempest on their new collection

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Jericho Brown

Maybe it's Pulitzer Prize winner Jericho Brown's previous job as a speechwriter for the mayor of New Orleans that makes his poetry so perfect for performance. 

The New Testament

by Jericho Brown

In poems of immense clarity, lyricism and skill, Brown shows us a world where disease runs through the body, violence runs through the neighbourhood, and trauma runs through generations. Brown makes brilliant and subversive use of Bible stories to address the gay experience from both a personal and a political perspective.

The Tradition

by Jericho Brown

The Tradition by Jericho Brown is a cutting and necessary collection, relentless in its quest for survival while revelling in a celebration of contradiction. His poems address fatherhood, race, queerness, worship, trauma and more with precision and clarity. In his own personal style, the duplex – a combination of the sonnet, the ghazal and the blues – Brown has created a daring and revolutionary collection. 

Linton Kwesi Johnson

The Jamaica-born, British-based Johnson coined the term 'dub poetry' in the 1970s, and performs in Jamaican patois over dub-reggae.

Time Come

by Linton Kwesi Johnson

Recognized as one of the great poets of modern times, and as a deeply respected and influential political and cultural activist and social critic, Linton Kwesi Johnson is also a prolific writer of non-fiction. In Time Come, he selects some of his most powerful prose – book and record reviews published in newspapers and magazines, lectures, obituaries and speeches – for the first time. Written over many decades, it is a body of work that draws creatively and critically on Johnson’s own Jamaican roots and on Caribbean history to explore the politics of race that continue to inform the Black British experience.

George the Poet

You may well have heard George's podcast (subscribers will see what we did there. . .) but George Mpanga has many strings to his bow. The spoken-word artist, poet and rapper has a particular interest in social and political issues. 

Holly McNish

Holly McNish has thrilled and entranced audiences the length and breadth of the UK with her compelling and powerful performances, and her poetry videos have attracted millions of views worldwide.


by Hollie McNish

A wise, sometimes rude, and piercingly candid account of Holly McNish's memories from childhood to attempted adulthood. This is a book about growing up, about flesh, fruit, friendships, work and play – and the urgent need to find a voice for the poems that will somehow do the whole glorious riot of it justice. It will leave the reader in no doubt as to why McNish is considered one of the most important poets of the new generation.

Want to hear more? Holly reads the audio edition of Plum, available here. 

Benjamin Zephaniah

The late, great Benjamin Zephaniah wanted to take poetry everywhere, turning poetry readings into major events to reach people who didn't read books.

Danez Smith

Danez Smith is black, non-binary and HIV positive, and their poetry explores this in achingly personal ways, delivered in performances that are full-body experiences, for Smith and audience alike.

Header image: Holly McNish, Kae Tempest, John Cooper Clarke (credit: Paul Wolfgang Webster), Linton Kwesi Johnson (credit: Danny Da Costa), Jericho Brown