You call the shots: Teaching ideas for the world’s ‘most popular’ British poem

Among many interesting snippets in a recent interview with performance poet John Cooper Clarke in The Guardian, perhaps the most surprising was interviewer Ben Beaumont-Thomas’s claim that his 1982 poem ‘i wanna be yours’ is the most popular twentieth-century British poem. (‘A billion listens? Is that a lot?’ John Cooper Clarke on penning possibly the world’s favourite poem | Music | The Guardian) With its references to the mundane furniture of everyday life – ‘let me be your vacuum cleaner / breathing in your dust / let me be your ford cortina / i will never rust’ – it has long been the wedding reading of choice for couples looking for something a little more down-to-earth, an antidote to the hyperbole and sentimentality of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. It is perhaps no surprise that ‘i wanna be yours’ finds itself in the spotlight again in 2023, with its appeals to basic human material needs – ‘let me be your electric meter / i will not run out / let me be the electric heater / you get cold without’ – resonating with the difficulties millions face as a result of spiralling energy prices and the current cost-of-living crisis, itself reminiscent of the energy crises of the 1970s, not many years before the poem was first recorded.

While Clarke explains that he is often accosted by couples keen to tell him his poem featured in their ceremony, the truth is that many of those familiar with his words would be unable to recognise him, despite his trademark black suit, dark glasses and messy black hair. They may not even know his name. Indeed, the poem owes much of its popularity to a version recorded by the rock band Arctic Monkeys, included as the final track on their multi-platinum-selling 2013 album AM. Built around the poet’s original verses, the addition of a chorus and sparse instrumentation allows frontman Alex Turner to create a haunting tone, less kitchen-sink romance, more late-night loneliness – Clarke hails ‘a killer bit of changed emphasis when he sings “let me be the portable heater”, suggesting a love rival that isn’t there in the poem.’

The numbers make it hard to argue with Beaumont-Thomas’s premise – and provide English teachers everywhere with a ready-made riposte to questions about the value of studying poetry. Since the interview was published a few weeks ago, the song has racked up its billionth listen on Spotify, but would most likely have never been recorded if not for the poem’s frequent appearance in GCSE anthologies over the last few decades. Frontman Alex Turner is quoted in the Guardian article as saying: ‘It made my ears prick up in the classroom, because it was nothing like anything I’d heard.’   

Teaching ideas

If you are teaching the Relationships collection of poems in the Pearson Edexcel GCSE (9–1) English Literature Poetry Anthology, you and your students will already be familiar with Clarke’s poem. As you help your students prepare for their exam, you might like to set them the activities below, based on activities in York Notes for GCSE English Language & Literature Revision and Exam Practice, and designed to help them consolidate their ideas about the poems they have studied. Ask students to read the activities, then share the Guardian article with them, before asking them to write their responses (Caution: the article contains some strong language).  

1. Look closely at the poem and try to find words and images that:

  • Suggest a specific place or time. You might want to think about the weather, for example. 

  • Suggest a particular historical period or cultural context. How does Clarke’s use of imagery reflect his status as the so-called ‘poet laureate of punk’? 

2. Write fifty words about the poem’s context. Remember:

  • Look for references to place.

  • Link language to context if you can.

3. Describe the poem’s form in approximately fifty words. Remember:

  • Name the form (if the poem has a specific one).

  • Show the effect of the form – what it helps the poet to do in the poem. For example, does it create humor, or shock, or convey atmosphere?

Following this, you might like to set the following practice exam question – again adapted from York Notes for GCSE English Language & Literature Revision and Exam Practice:

Read ‘i wanna be yours’ by John Cooper Clarke. Choose one other poem from the ‘Relationships’ anthology. Compare how attitudes to love are presented in the two poems.

The guide suggests pairing Clarke’s poem with Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Valentine’ – this is taken from the answers at the back of the book:

Both poems present unusual attitudes to love through humorous metaphors. Instead of a ‘satin heart’ the speaker in ‘Valentine’ offers to the lover an onion, a surprising extended metaphor that runs through the poem and challenges the sentimental, conventional view of love, as does Cooper Clarke’s poem. It consists of a long list of everyday objects that represent the lover and are both mundane and comic.

If you are teaching a different specification, or a different collection from the Pearson anthology, you could use Clarke’s poem as practice for the unseen poetry section. Why not try pairing it with a more conventional love poem, to help students draw out the unusual way Clarke explores the theme? 

When they have had a chance to write their responses, share the Guardian article and ask them to assess their own understanding of the way the theme of love is presented in Clarke’s poem, in light of what it says.

More information about the York Notes for GCSE English Language & Literature Revision and Exam Practice, which contains guidance and practice activities for every component of your students’ exams, whether they are studying the AQA, Pearson Edexcel, OCR or Eduqas specification, can be found here.

Our full range of GCSE English Literature study guides, workbooks, practice tests and revision resources can be found here.