by Melissa Balmain
t a time when most best-selling authors crank out novels or self-help manuals, Wendy Cope is the exception who gives poets hope.
Hundreds of thousands of people own copies of her books. Her readings draw standing-room-only crowds in her native England. In April 2011, the British Library paid Cope £32,000 for an archive of her notebooks, manuscripts, school reports, unpublished poems, and 40,000 emails.
And she’s managed all this without writing a single murder mystery or guide to your chakras. What Cope does write are clear, keen-eyed poems on everyday experiences: falling in and out of love, growing older, eating fruit. Many of them, especially those written in form, stick with a reader the way good music does. (Small wonder, given that Cope likes to sing and play the piano, guitar, and recorder.) Nearly all of them hum with enormous wit, ranging from subtle to thigh-slapping.
To Cope’s apparent chagrin, though, the qualities that make her a perennial favorite on the BBC don’t always endear her to critics. “Yes, my work is popular with the reading public,” she writes in a recent e-mail (so far uncollected by the British Library). “But don't think that means that poets don't sneer at it. They do. Not all of them, of course, but plenty. And I don't win prizes.”
Her lack of awards and recognition by peers is relative, of course. In 2010, Cope was named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.). She has won a Cholmondeley Award and a Michael Braude Award for Light Verse, and was shortlisted for the Whitbread Poetry Award. She counts some prominent writers and critics on her side. Still, the United Kingdom’s top literary honors have mostly eluded her.
Why has she received less critical acclaim than some of her contemporaries? The seeming simplicity of her style may be to blame, suggests an essay by the poet Gerry Cambridge. “Cope’s work may well seem undistinguished to literary critics trained in teasing out multiple allusions and elucidating complexities in dense verse,” he writes. Another possibility: critics tend to dismiss funny poems. In the introduction to her anthology The Funny Side, Cope finds evidence of this in the term “light verse,” which she loathes. “The word ‘light’ seems to imply that a poem can’t be funny and serious (weighty) at the same time,” she writes. “Some people do believe that a humorous poem can’t be deeply felt, or deal with anything that matters very much. In fact, much humorous writing arises from despair and misery.”
And Cope, who has suffered on and off from depression since childhood, has seen both.
Born in 1945 in Erith, Kent, she had an often difficult upbringing. Her father, in his late 50s when Cope and her sister came along, ran a department store; her mother worked there as a secretary. “He was an emotional man,” Cope told The Guardian in 2008. “We children had to be kept out of the way because he was old and worked hard and worried about the business. He [had] married a much younger woman and wanted a quiet life. He should have intervened to protect us from her because she wasn’t very nice to us.” The main adult who was nice to Cope was a family housecleaner named Margaret Arnold, with whom Cope stayed in touch until Arnold’s death.
When Cope was 7, her parents sent her to boarding school. She found the move painful at first—especially the separation from Arnold—but she has acknowledged that “if you've got the kind of parents who want to send you to boarding school, you're probably better off at boarding school.” She went on to study history at Oxford and earn her teaching credentials at Oxford’s Westminster College of Education (now part of Oxford Brookes University). She taught primary school from 1967 to 1981 and 1984 to 1986. Also in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, she worked as a freelance writer, the Arts and Reviews editor for the magazine Contact, and television critic for The Spectator.
Although Cope’s parents read poetry to her by the likes of Tennyson and Khayyám when she was young, and she studied and enjoyed poetry in college, she wrote little of her own for most of her first three decades. (She recalls being assigned to produce a poem just once in school, when she was six; around age 14, she wrote “really bad adolescent poems.”) In her late 20s, the floodgates opened. She credits “three things that happened at the same time: one was that I was working as a primary school teacher and I was doing a lot of creative work in music and poetry with the children and that was one thing that got me going; another was that I had just moved into a flat on my own so for the first time there was no one at home to talk to; and the third thing was that I'd been in psychoanalysis for six months when I suddenly began writing and I was getting in touch with some powerful feelings I didn't know I had and I needed some way of expressing them.”
Also in that period, Cope began reading poems “obsessively”—often ones by Sylvia Plath. Though her own early efforts read like “bad imitations” of Plath and of T.S. Eliot (her words), she soon found her voice and began publishing in places ranging from Poetry Review to Vogue.
Her first book-length collection, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (Faber and Faber, 1986), vaulted her to celebrity. She has since written three more, all published by Faber and Faber: Serious Concerns (1992), If I Don’t Know (2001), and Family Values (2011), as well as a number of smaller volumes and books for children. Thanks to certain frequently-reprinted poems, some readers think of Cope mainly as an acerbic critic of men, relationships, and sexual politics ( “Bloody Men,” “Loss,” “Lonely Hearts”) or as a gifted parodist (“Waste Land Limericks,” “A Nursery Rhyme”). But as the poet Julie Kane has observed, Cope “resists easy categorization.” Love gone right, for instance, has long been nearly as big a theme of hers as love gone wrong, especially in If I Don’t Know (published after she settled down with the poet Lachlan MacKinnon): In poems such as “The Orange” (Serious Concerns) and “Being Boring” (If I Don’t Know), she hymns domestic pleasures and the ways love can transform everyday life. Poems about aging, loss, and death have become increasingly frequent, as one might expect with advancing years. Family Values features more than a dozen poems along these lines, including the self-deprecating “Sixty-one”: “Sixty-one and on a diet./ Will I end up thin or fat/When my heart and brain go quiet?” (1-3). Other topics that crop up again and again in Cope’s writing are religion (she wonders if God exists and doubts that heaven does), the literary life (she twits boring poets, pompous publishers, and sneaky journalists), and nature (she tends to appear comically alienated from it, despite attempts to have uplifting, Wordsworthian experiences). Family life, too, has been a motif. Cope’s earlier books contain few poems about her own early years, but Family Values (and its predecessor, the annotated best-of collection Two Cures for Love: Selected Poems, 1979-2006) includes several that depict the young Wendy as an anxious, sometimes lonely girl at the hands of a self-centered, controlling woman. “Brahms Cradle Song” offers a rare glimpse of her mother’s more nurturing side: “She read me Black Beauty./She made me learn the piano./She taught me to swim…//For all that, I am grateful./As for the rest, I can begin/To imagine forgiving her…” (13-15, 19-21).
Except for acknowledging Plath’s early influence, Cope has been cautious about naming poets who have informed her work. “I don't know which poets have influenced me, because I think that's really more for others to judge,” she told The Observer in 2001. But she has singled out plenty for praise, including George Herbert, John Clare, Emily Dickinson, A.E. Housman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Fleur Adcock, Kit Wright, James Fenton, Sophie Hannah, and Philip Larkin.
Like many of those poets, she tends to be colloquial and brief. Perhaps as a result, her work has a polish that’s scarce in contemporary poetry. She expertly varies her phrase lengths (there’s no such thing as a monotonous Cope stanza, unless that’s her intent), and uses short, familiar words in ways that feel fresh. As The Observer’s Kate Kellaway puts it, “What is interesting about [Cope’s] preference for short words and sentences is that it gives her writing a nowhere-to-run, nowhere-to-hide directness.” And as Cambridge has noted, that directness is not to be mistaken for a lack of artistry. “Cope’s work points out the gulf between the highbrow literary—and by extension, perhaps, the academic world—and the world of the ‘common reader,’” he writes. “She is most obviously on the side of the latter, yet the artifice and subtle craft of the best of her poems make her difficult to dismiss by the former as a poetaster. Her position in this respect is perhaps unique among British poets.”
In “By the Round Pond” (If I Don’t Know) Cope captures the essence of several philosophical and theological puzzles—topics of countless books—in twelve spare lines.
You watch yourself. You watch the watcher too—
A ghostly figure on the garden wall.
And one of you is her, and one is you,
If either one of you exists at all.
How strange to be the one behind a face,
To have a name and know that it is yours,
To be in this particular green place,
To see a snail advance, to see it pause.
You sit quite still and wonder when you’ll go.
It could be now. Or now. Or now. You stay.
Who’s making up the plot? You’ll never know.
Minute after minute swims away.
(Reprinted with permission of the author)
Among the poem’s puzzles: How can we be sure we exist? Do we have free will? Is there a god? From the get-go, Cope expertly lures us into experiencing the narrator’s own contemplative frame of mind. “Watch,” “watcher,” and “one,” with their lip-closing “W” sounds, take more time to say aloud than many words do; by repeating these sounds in stanza one, she slows our mouths, along with our chattering minds. Other word repetitions throughout the poem (“you,” “now,” “minute”) and frequent alliteration (ghostly/garden; name/know; sit/still; particular/place/pause) further enhance its wondering, hypnotic spell. Cope’s syntax feels unforced and inevitable, which suits the timeless nature of her subject here. Her rhyme scheme (abab, cdcd, efef) is so simple, and her rhyming words so characteristically natural, that they build the poem as subtly as drops of water feed an actual pond.
As if all this weren’t enough to put us in the poem’s “particular green place,” Cope reels us in with the second-person pronoun and with universal imagery. A pond is a common spot for reflection in every sense. Practically every adult knows what it’s like to sit beside one, lost in thought, or to gaze into the mirror of its surface. It’s no stretch, then, to picture ourselves beside Cope’s pond with our own faces rippling in it. Soon we, like Cope, may begin considering our futures, both short- and long-term. (It’s surely no accident that “You… wonder when you’ll go” could refer equally to walking away from the pond, or to the ultimate departure of death.) And before we know it, we too may feel the minutes swimming away like fish.
Unlike many of her idols, Cope seldom writes allegorical or fictive poems—sticking instead to scenes, people, and situations she knows firsthand. Even when she strays from that pattern (and from her usual brevity), her invented characters share an awful lot of her sensibilities. Consider the mother-bullied boy of “The Teacher’s Tale” (If I Don’t Know), or the protagonist of The River Girl, a sort of water goddess whose love for a poet is doomed by his ego and the literary social whirl. (Jason Strugnell, the imaginary author of parodies in Making Cocoa and Serious Concerns, clearly doesn’t share Cope’s disdain for windiness and self-importance—making him a tongue-in-cheek vehicle for conveying it.) “I sometimes think I'd like to write a novel, but it doesn't look as if it will happen,” she says by email. “I would need to be seized by an idea for a novel and I never have been. And I'm not sure how interested I am in making things up. I prefer what Seamus Heaney calls ‘the music of what happens.’”
When putting that music on the page, Cope displays an uncanny knack for fitting subject to form. In Making Cocoa’s “Lonely Hearts,” “Rondeau Redoublé,” and “Message,” for example, she uses the villanelle and rondeau redoublé, with their repetitions and shifts in meaning, to evoke obsessive loneliness, resentment, and hope. In “Once I’m Dead,” “Seeing You,” “Keep Saying This,” and other poems in Family Values, her triolets and villanelles do the same for recurrent fears of death—while the run-on, Ogden-Nashian couplets of “My Funeral” match her concern that prolix mourners might use the occasion as “an excuse for an unsolicited ego-trip” (2). At the other end of the spectrum lie poems such as “The Stickleback Song” (If I Don’t Know) and “The Cougher” (Family Values). Both are pure romps—about a school inspection and a concertgoer with a tickle in her throat, respectively—and both are made all the funnier by rollicking anapestic sestets.
One of her most effective meshings of form and content is the Shakespearean sonnet “Faint Praise” (Serious Concerns):
Size isn’t everything. It’s what you do
that matters, darling, and you do quite well
in some respects. Credit where credit’s due—
You work, you’re literate, you rarely smell.
Small men can be aggressive, people say,
But you are often genial and kind,
As long as you can have things all your way
And I comply, and do not speak my mind.
You look all right. I’ve never been disgusted
By paunchiness. Who wants some skinny youth?
My friends have warned me that you can’t be trusted
But I protest I’ve heard you tell the truth.
Nobody’s perfect. Now and then, my pet,
You’re almost human. You could make it yet.
(Reprinted with permission of the author)
Her first two lines lead us to expect a realistic-yet-loving poem a la Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun…”). In lines 3 and 4, though, we realize she’s up to something else: instead of praising through seeming scorn, she is (as her title suggests) scorning through seeming praise. And so it goes for the rest of the poem: she coolly cuts down her subject while continuing to subvert our expectations—in this case, our expectations of the clichéd phrases she sprinkles throughout. They’re phrases normally meant to encourage, yet Cope upends each so swiftly that we can imagine a parenthetical jab after each: “It’s what you do that matters” (and you do very little); “Credit where credit’s due” (almost none in your case); “Nobody’s perfect” (especially you). Her upending of “Size isn’t everything” is the most layered—and funniest—of all, given that “size” is a quintuple-entendre that may refer to height, weight, intellect, professional stature, and of course genitalia. Such content could turn dully strident, if it weren’t for Cope’s understatement. Her use of enjambment helps too. It mutes her end rhymes, making the poem feel conversational, while echoing her theme of disguise; just as she initially masks her critical intent, she uses enjambment to hide that this is verse, rather than, say, a phone call after a fraught weekend. The poem’s morning-after quality also makes its narrator more relatable. Even though she addresses the poem right to the man in question, we can safely assume she hasn’t said such things to him in person—otherwise, how could they still be a couple (as implied by the poem’s present tense)? Instead, the barbs of “Faint Praise” come across as the sort we all wish we could use to someone’s face, but never do. Cope is giving us vicarious zingers.
Such therapeutic perks, made possible by her wit, are perhaps the main reason Cope’s poems have been “going viral” since before that expression was coined. Widely memorized and YouTubed, they get passed from friend to lovelorn friend, from therapist to depressed client—making her, inadvertently, a bit of a self-help writer after all. Among the most circulated (and memorized) is her epigram “Two Cures for Love” (Serious Concerns). A pithy sendup of magazine-style relationship advice, it contains volumes of subtext—all deftly underscored by caesuras, and by pauses that result from punctuation and numbering.
Two Cures for Love
1. Don’t See Him. Don’t phone or write a letter.
2. The easy way: get to know him better.
(Reprinted with permission of the author)
It seems likely that the loss-and-death poems of Family Values also will travel hand to hand among readers, especially “Keep Saying This,” a villanelle with a pep-talk vibe. But as Cope hints in her account of her early psychoanalytic years—as well as in her poem “The Health Scare” (“I’m living with Uncertainty and Fear./It helps to say their names and make them rhyme”)—her work doesn’t just help her fans. “People sometimes sneer at the idea of poetry as therapy for the poet,” she said in a 2010 video interview. “But my theory is that if it works as therapy, it works as poetry and vice versa—you know, that something happens in the course of writing it down that helps [me].” That something, she has explained, has to do with “working out exactly what the problem is,” with getting it on paper as accurately as possible and giving it shape. Once she’s done that, surprises may be in store. “Sometimes, [with] quite a lot of my poems, I start off being very upset about something,” she said in the video interview. “And then I see my way through to a funny side of it.”
Cambridge, Gerry. “Wendy Cope (1945–).” British Writers: Supplement VIII. Ed. Jay Parini. Scribner’s, 2003. 67-84.
Kane, Julie. Entry on Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis. The Facts on File Companion to British Poetry: 1900 to the Present. Eds. James Persoon and Robert R. Watson. Facts on File, 2009, 303-304.
Kellaway, Kate. “Family Values by Wendy Cope.” The Observer. May 15, 2011.
Mansfield, Susan. “Interview with Wendy Cope, Author.” The Scotsman. April 10, 2011.
McCrum, Robert. “Happiness Writes Good Poems.” The Observer. June 3, 2001.
Sethi, Anitha. “Pieces of Me: Wendy Cope, Poet.” The Guardian. July 7, 2008.
Videotaped onversations with Frank Wilson at the West Chester Poetry Conference. “An Interview with Wendy Cope.” June 2010. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SfRa0xQsI5Y (part one); http://www.youtube.com/user/PresterF?blend=24&ob=5#p/u/0/yzh2A1axRIk (part two)
Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis. Faber and Faber, 1986.
Serious Concerns. Faber and Faber, 1992.
If I Don't Know. Faber and Faber, 2001.
Two Cures for Love: Selected Poems 1979-2006. Faber and Faber, 2008.
Family Values. London: Faber and Faber, 2011.
Twiddling Your Thumbs. London: Faber and Faber, 1988.
The River Girl. London: Faber and Faber, 1991.
Anthologies, limited editions and other publications:
Across the City. Priapus Press, 1980
Hope and the 42. Other Branch Readings, 1984.
Poem from a Colour Chart of House Paints, Priapus Press, 1986.
Does She Like Word Games? Anvil Press Poetry, 1988
Men and Their Boring Arguments Wykeham, 1988.
The Squirrel and the Crow. Prospero Poets, 1994.
Is That the New Moon? Harper Collins, 1989, Editor.
The Orchard Book of Funny Poems. Orchard, 1993, Editor.
Casting a Spell. Faber and Faber, 1996, Contributor.
The Funny Side: 101 Humorous Poems. Faber and Faber, 1998, Editor.
The Faber Book of Bedtime Stories. Faber and Faber, 1999, Editor.
The Orchard Book of Funny Poems. Orchard, 2000, Editor.
Heaven on Earth: 101 Happy Poems. Faber and Faber, 2001, Editor.
Is That The New Moon?: Poems by Women Poets. Collins, 2002, Selector.
George Herbert: Verse and Prose. SPCK, 2003, Selector and introduction writer.