Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
Katy Evans-Bush

Coping with Happiness

 

A Consideration of Wendy Cope's Poetry


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          The English poet Wendy Cope is a “perennial favourite”, an erudite satirist, sentimental and cool-eyed, a flawless technician, and—most unusual of all in a contemporary poet—a champion of happiness. As the foremost current writer of ‘light verse’ (a term she derides) she has carved out a terrain that she occupies pretty much unchallenged in the UK. Her books sell conspicuously well, despite the note of gloom sounded around the literary magazines when the subject of poetry sales comes up; her name is one of the few most people can name when asked to list living poets; and, when BBC Radio held a listeners’ poll on who should succeed Ted Hughes as Poet Laureate (a lifelong post), Wendy Cope was first choice.  

          Unsurprisingly in the face of all this popularity, you don’t have to go far to find a lukewarm review of her work, especially in more highbrow quarters of the UK poetry world: people seem to like damning her with faint praise. This phenomenon may be based more on her poetry than her popularity: as early as October 25 1986, Robert O’Brien wrote in The Spectator, “She is witty and unpretentious, which is both her strength and her limitation.” This about sums up the debate. Cope used the quote as the epigraph to the first half of her poem Serious Concerns: 

            I’m going to try to overcome my limitation—

            Away with sloth!

            Now should I work at being less witty? Or more pretentious?

Or both? 

         Certainly there can appear to be a primary-color cast to her palette, and certainly in her total lack of pretension (or pretentiousness, depending how you use the word) Cope has struck out across a particular territory. Her much-criticized Attitude Towards Men (more on that later) has thrown up dust in her path; and, if there are ever two ways of reading a word in one of her poems, that layered meaning is actually part of the subject of the poem. Symbolic significance does not always accrue, but subtle emotional tones do. Her poems often end on a wistful note, her comic creations often do betray the suffering in their genes, and this may be why—when the old conversation comes round about how poetry’s “natural readership” (the educated, culturally-informed, theatre-going, serious-novel-reading middle classes, including even people who teach it) doesn’t read poetry—well actually, quite a few of them do read Wendy Cope.  

          Cope was born in suburban Kent in 1945. When she was young she scribbled children’s stories in her school notebooks, but instead of pursuing that she went on to Oxford University, after which she was a primary school teacher in London for many years. (She has since become an outspoken advocate of good poetry for children, and has written and edited several books for children.) 

          She started writing poetry a few months after starting to see an analyst and realizing that she had never stopped wanting to be a writer. However, while clearly drawing heavily on her own experiences—in relationships, for example—Cope steers well clear of the well-charted excesses of ‘confessional’ poetry. Using her own life as rough material, and with a healthy sense of perspective, she extrapolates to describe emotions that become universal in their specificity. If this seems pat to readers who are accustomed to more tormented material, it nonetheless operates in the same way as many novels, pop songs, and even sitcoms. This seems to be a key point in understanding the way her poetry operates: she has described a revelation brought about in her therapy when she understood that, not only was she fully entitled to her own point of view, she also did not have to justify her point of view to anyone. What has followed since is, purely, a celebration of Wendy Cope’s own point of view. 

          Her first collection, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, won critical acclaim when it came out in 1986 and established her overnight as a successor to John Betjeman (himself Laureate from 1972-1984). Her celebrations of the small-scale triumph and despair of daily life were framed in pitch-perfect meter and rhyme, her satire was gentle and affectionate—but straight as an arrow to its mark—and her tone ranged from rueful humor to sweet lyric. 

          She also controversially brought a very outspoken female viewpoint to bear, as we can see in the typically brisk “Rondeau Redouble”, which begins: 

            There are so many kinds of awful men—

One can’t avoid them all. She often said

She’d never make the same mistake again:

She always made a new mistake instead.

 

The chinless type who made her feel ill-bred;

The practised charmer, less than charming when

He talked about the wife and kids and fled—

There are so many types of awful men. 

          Many of Cope’s earlier poems are, twenty years pre-Bridget Jones, about the problems of finding or keeping a man—or being able to stand him once you do—or about the awkwardnesses and embarrassments of being in love. But many critics have often failed to take note of the plangent note of affection in these poems. This is not the voice of the separatist collective: Cope clearly cannot live without men in all their close-up, domestic glory.  

          Much of the first book is given over to effortlessly brilliant parodies, versions and pastiches, some of which can be viewed a broadside to the very poetry establishment that makes it so hard to be a serious female writer (or, arguably, a funny writer—who, in order to be taken at all seriously, must be even more serious than a serious one). Marking out the battle lines, she devotes not one but two parodies to T. S. Eliot (the jacket of her second book sports a picture of her creation, Roger Bear, reading a copy of Notes Towards the Definition of Culture: if this is a battle it’s a pillow fight). A Nursery Rhyme as it might have been written by T. S. Eliot sends the great poet scuttling across the floor:  

. . . In the last minute of the first hour

I saw the mouse ascend the ancient timepiece,

Claws whispering like wind in dry hyacinths . . .

 

and Waste Land Limericks bursts the pillow, covers him in feathers:

No water. Dry rocks and dry throats,

Then thunder, a shower of quotes

From the Sanskrit and Dante.

Da. Damyata. Shantih.

I hope you’ll make sense of the notes. 

          Cozy, yes. Funny, yes. And, springing as they do from Cope’s constant and deep engagement with English poetry (and understanding of it, no matter what she may say about notes), this poem sets the scene for later, more “serious” poems like “Reading John Berryman at the Writers’ Retreat” and her simple, moving “John Clare” (“As if a songbird’s throat/ Could utter words, you wrote.”), both from If I Don’t Know. In the wonderful “The Cricketing Versions” (in Serious Concerns), the line “I don’t think there’s any (cricket) in Paradise Lost” is footnoted: “Apparently there is. ‘Chaos umpire sits / And by decision more embroils the fray.’ Paradise Lost, book II, lines 907-8.”      

          “A Nursery Rhyme as it might have been written by William Wordsworth” is worth mentioning because, as well as with men and the poetic canon, Cope has a long-running engagement with nature poetry. This is the first volley in the valley:

            . . . And (I), turning, saw, as one sees in a dream,

            It was a Sheep had broke the moorland peace

            With his sad cry, a creature who did seem

            The blackest thing that ever wore a fleece.

 

            I walked towards him on the stony track

            And, pausing for a while between two crags,

            I asked him, “Have you wool upon your back?”

            Thus he bespake, “Enough to fill three bags.”. . .

           This dialectic between urban and pastoral poetry is of course a major theme in English poetry, with the country poet—in this arena—enjoying the traditional advantages of the town mouse. Few poets have successfully represented both town and country. It is a dilemma for a poet of the suburbs, and one of the great subjects of twentieth-century English writing—both poetry and fiction. 

          The largest section of Making Cocoa is given over to Cope’s enduring creation, Jason Strugnell, a sort of grown-up Adrian Mole character. This writer can’t think of another poet who has an alter ego like him. Strugnell is a shiftless poetry-group-going type living in a dreary London suburb, who writes poems about sitting in the pub, and walking down the street, and being a poet. He’s definitely of the type later identified by Cope as a “tump”—a Typically Useless Male Poet—but he is clearly Cope’s “inner male poet”, and through the three collections his poems develop alongside hers. (Your reviewer was recently party to a rather long debate as to whether being a bad driver was conducive to being a good poet, and vice versa. This I-can’t-help-it-I’m-only-a-poet is tump territory, and while it’s a fun place to visit you wouldn’t want to live there. A more successful, American version of the type might be represented by someone like Billy Collins, for example, though it would be a mistake to think of Strugnell as anywhere near that polished.) In (i) from Strugnell’s Sonnets (dedicated to the notorious womanizing novelist D. M. Thomas), Strugnell writes:

            . . . I had this bird called Sharon, fond of gin—

            Could knock back six or seven. At the price

            I paid a high wage for each hour of sin

            And that was why I only had her twice…

            . . . I need a woman, honest and sincere,

            Who’ll come across on half a pint of beer.

(ii) from Strugnell’s Haiku can be quoted in its entirety: 

            The leaves have fallen

            And the snow has fallen and

            Soon my hair also.

But Strugnell—whose only flaw as a construct may be that he is too reliably unreliable a narrator, and sometimes appears just as clever as Cope—can also go for more complexity, as in the second stanza of “E Pericoloso Sporgersi”:  

            Pastruccio knew what to make of such

            gratuitous moments, the refractions

            of inveterate light. In a garden

            of non sequiturs the silkworm dozes,

            ignorant of Spinoza and unworried

            by sex or the darkening obscurity

            of sonorous sentences like these. 

          Cope’s second collection, Serious Concerns (1992), was less well received by the critics but sold even more copies. Cope herself considers it to be the best collection of her three to date, and this writer knows others who agree. It contains as much humor as the first, but with a darker tinge. This book certainly played its part in reinforcing her reputation for being a “man-hater”—although, as she reminded Robert McCrum in an interview for the Sunday paper The Observer, in 1992, each of her collections has easily its fair share of love poems addressed to actual men. (Her love poems are genuinely affecting in their emotional directness and their groundedness in the everyday life of a relationship.) 

          Serious Concerns was written at a time when Cope’s personal life was not going well—she was on her own and felt isolated as a freelance writer living alone in London—and poems like “Faint Praise,” “Men and Their Boring Arguments,” and “Two Cures For Love” do strike a slightly bitter note. But the book also contains some of Cope’s funniest and most perceptive poems, some of them about the same singles-vs.-partners theme. “Exchange of Letters” is a prose poem purporting to be a reply to a lonely hearts ad in the New York Review of Books, which went, “Man who is a serious novel would like to hear from a woman who is a poem” (and they sign their letters, respectively, “Song of the First Snowdrop” and “Death of the Zeitgeist”). “The Concerned Adolescent,” a spot-on pastiche of teenage angst and its bathos, would have been worthy of the teenage Strugnell’s high school magazine. “Pastoral” deepens Cope’s engagement with the country / town rivalry, in a few stanzas that convey just how hemmed-in she feels in the city, and also just how much she loves it: 

            . . . And I’d stomp off down the wild, wild lanes

            in my jeans and my wellington boots.

            A provincial poet doesn’t need lipstick

            Or tights or respectable suits—

 

            The clutter of urban life. How wonderful

            Just to discard it all

            And spend one’s time communing with everything

            Perched on a dry-stone wall . . .

 

            Then go to the pub with some real people . . .

 

            . . . Real people, as solid and ruddy and calm

            As a London bus in the rain!

And this writer’s favourite poem by Strugnell (from “Strugnell Lunaire”) sums up neatly Cope’s ability to milk bathetic overstatement for poignancy, as well as something more like happiness: 

            The silver moon pours down her light.

            I drink it in with thirsty eyes.

            I’d rather have another pint of lager

            But all the pubs are closed.

            The poet must drink deep of life

            To find poetic ecstasy.

            The silver moon pours down her light.

            I drink it in with thirsty eyes.

            Tonight I am intoxicated

            And every night it is the same.

            I wander down the beauteous High Street

            And, if the weather isn’t cloudy,

            The silver moon pours down her light. 

By 1995 Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis and Serious Concerns had sold 60,000 copies each.  

           With If I Don’t Know (2001) Cope moved a little further away from straight humor to expand her repertoire of “serious concerns,” though it still has plenty of funny poems (and indeed even the first collection contained poems in a lyric or even elegiac mode, which had gone virtually unnoticed beside the more pyrotechnical parody and satire).  

          Strugnell is out of the picture, but Cope’s themes remain intact: the chilling but funny “Dead Sheep Poem” (which begins with a sheepskin rug in a shop window and ends on a hillside: “Crows and maggots cleared off long ago— / The person with the notebook has arrived”) continues her inner argument with the countryside, and the good old familiar domestic strife is never far away either:

 He tells her that the earth is flat—

He knows the facts, and that is that.

In altercations fierce and strong

She tries her best to prove him wrong.

. . . She cannot win. He stands his ground.

 

The planet goes on being round. 

The book ends with a poignant and somber 21-page narrative in rhyming couplets, called “The Teacher’s Tale,” mentioned earlier, which recalls a more earnest Stevie Smith in its sharp and touching observance of life’s struggle.  

          As well as these three collections Wendy Cope has edited several poetry anthologies, has written poetry for children, and is an outspoken champion of good books for children. She has been Arts and Reviews editor for the Inner London Education Authority magazine, and television critic for The Spectator magazine. If I Don’t Know was shortlisted for the Whitbread Poetry Award. She received a Cholmondeley Award in 1987 and the Michael Braude Award for Light Verse (American Academy of Arts and Letters) in 1995, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. 

          Against this background of awards, prizes, fellowships, and popular accolades, coupled with the slightly sniffy reluctance of some readers to give her room, it may be well to look at Wendy Cope and ask: what kind of writer is she? In a country that has, unlike America, never been uncomfortable with formal verse, she is consummately versatile in her use of form, but also writes in free verse and plays verbal games of kinds that a “New Formalist” (excuse the scare quotes) might not be altogether happy with, as in “The Lyric Poet (from a line by Heine)”: 

I ache

I die

I m        in

             he l l

I ma ke

          l ine

 ma d

             i l           l

 a

 ch i l d

 in

 ne ed

I ma ke

 a l ine

 he

 c a l led

 m e

 he

 he l d

 m e…

(The line is “Ich mache die kleinen Lieder”.)  

          Her mastery of form is evident on every page; each of her books is bursting its binding with seemingly effortless villanelles, triolets, sonnets, some subtly and amusingly subverting the form—as in “Nine-Line Triolet,” which contains an extra line, in parentheses: “(I’ll curse every rule in the book as we part)”. The distinction here between “accessible” and “postmodern” is blurred. Cope’s free-verse pastiches are just as funny as her formal ones, which either puts paid to the notion that rhyme is what’s funny, or proves how clever Cope is. It also proves that “mass” readers are able to enjoy send-ups of high art, as in the takedown of William Carlos Williams entitled So Much Depends.  

          This dividing line has been much less radically drawn in the UK than in America: most mainstream poets here write both “free” and “formal” verse, and are more or less expected to demonstrate range in this way. Several poets regarded as “hip” in the UK write primarily in meter and rhyme, for example Tony Harrison and Simon Armitage.

          Her free verse benefits from her skill with repeated ends; poems like “Does She Like Word Games?” and the triolet “Valentine,” as well as the Strugnell poem quoted in full above, achieve subtle coloration changes (often starting out as broad humor, only to leave the reader on a more dubious note) without varying the syntax of the repeated line.  

          Gerry Cambridge, in his essay on Cope (‘A Note on Wendy Cope,’ which first appeared in Acumen magazine in 1996), traces the family tree from Cope back to Larkin: in the place where something funny suddenly drops off to reveal the underlying anxiety. The best example quoted by him is Cope’s famous poem Bloody Men, the first poem in Serious Concerns: “Bloody men are like bloody buses / You wait for about a year / And as soon as one approaches your stop / Two or three others appear”, the register suddenly changes in the final lines: “While the cars and the taxis go by, / And the minutes, the hours, the days.” 

           The gender issue may perhaps be best underplayed, but it is integral, I think, to an understanding of how Wendy Cope’s reputation operates; it’s clear how her poetry and her life as a writer operate through this element. She’s no revolutionary—her scenarios are the safe scenarios of people who don’t like to make a fuss, and certainly wouldn’t like to be rude: nice single women, suburban dinner party hostesses, timorous Lonely Hearts hopefuls. In “Men and Their Boring Arguments” for example (from Serious Concerns): 

One man on his own can be quite good fun

But don’t go drinking with two—

They’ll probably have an argument

And take no notice of you. 

          Now, this scenario is familiar to women at dinner parties up and down the land, and furthermore not too advanced for the landscape of even, say, the 1960’s. Feminists tend to dislike Cope on the grounds that she’s a recidivist, patronizing men in the (otherwise powerless) manner of Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz. But there are two grand old English traditions, and they are interlinked across a fine line: complaining, and laughing at things. On this basis we might as well say we were in Jane Austen territory. The third line of defense is, of course, to subvert, as in “So Much Depends” or Cope’s Eliot parodies. 

          Most poetry editors are men (and more so when Cope started out), and it is inevitable that they should notice the trenchant cheerfulness of poems like these. Cope meets them on their own turf in a way Ethel did not, and she does it with laughter. Most women poets, for whatever reason, don’t write funny poems about men’s faults on one page and admit their attachment on the next, following with neat little send-ups of high art. As to her famous line, “Some men are more or less all right” (which this writer, in any case, reads as ironic understatement), she told Robert McCrum (again in the Observer interview): “Of course I should add that some men are more than more or less all right.” 

          Cope’s 2001 anthology Heaven on Earth: 101 Happy Poems is also worth considering because it is in one way a gauntlet thrown, and it is also a gesture towards all those people who want to like poetry but also like to feel good about their lives. Poems Cope chose for the volume include, as well as obvious choices like Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” or Dickinson’s “I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed,” such somber little pieces as Oshima Ryota’s haiku: “Bad-tempered, I got back: / Then, in the garden, / The willow-tree”) and Michael Donaghy’s “Held” (“Not as this hieroglyph chiseled by Hittites in lazuli, / Spiraled and faint, is a word for ‘unending’. . . But as we stood at the window together, in silence, / Precisely twelve minutes by candlelight waiting for thunder”). 

          Cope’s own work presents a challenge to the idea that poetry has to be sad, or pessimistic, or bitter, or even very ambiguous and, as she says in her preface, many of the poems she’s chosen aren’t at all funny (as many funny poems aren’t at all happy). In the introduction to that book, Cope writes:    

Though the book sprang, as I have said, from the wish to prove a point, it became more than that, as I found myself absorbed in the attempt to create a celebration of those moments of happiness that most of us do, in spite of everything, experience. 

          Experiencing this happiness is something Cope as a writer and as a person has long taken as her right (and her unhappiness with her circumstances has dissipated—for example, the urban isolation of the period when she was writing Serious Concerns is over, and she is now married, to the poet Lachlan MacKinnon, and living in Winchester). Happiness has done her no harm. In an interview with the editor of Mind Readings (Secker, 1996) she addressed the idea that artists who go in for analysis will make their creativity suffer; it’s worth looking at some of her remarks, as they have a direct bearing on the kind of poetry she writes:  

I’ll tell you what the important thing was—it was to do with my feeling that I had a right to my own way of seeing things. Up until then I had allowed other people to impose their view of things to such an extent that I didn’t very often see things for myself. The first breakthrough was to understand that I was entitled to my view of what was going on between me and the man I was involved with. I didn’t have to accept his view and I didn’t have to argue with him either. I was entitled to have my own view privately, which was not the same as his. I found that I wanted to write it down and that was, I think, the first poem I wrote . . . . At a certain point I realized, and this was a revelation to me, that when someone asked me how I felt about something, I was coming up with a plausible answer but actually I didn’t really know how I was feeling. I asked myself what would be reasonable. I thought I was telling the truth but then I realized that’s not how I’m feeling, that’s just what I think. I began to see that I did not actually know where to look for the answer to the question, “what are you feeling?” 

I didn’t know that if you accidentally drop a cup of tea over someone it may mean that you’re angry with them. 

And if you drop the cup it may also make someone (though probably someone else) laugh. And then you can write about it. In her introduction to The Funny Side: 101 Humorous Poems (1998), Cope writes:  

As for “light verse,” I greatly dislike the term. I don’t believe it is useful any more, and I wish we could scrap it. The word “light” seems to imply that a poem can’t be funny and serious (weighty) at the same time. 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. 

          Despair and misery creating the poetry of good mental health: it doesn’t sound like a runner. But Cope’s high profile with the reading public, the way her poems stick in the mind and come back at opportune moments, and the sheer joyousness even of her complaints about the state of things, put her well on the way to winning the argument. And, as the profoundly sane Keats himself said, "Aye, in the very temple of Delight / Veiled Melancholy has her sovran shrine..." 

 


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