Family Values, By Wendy Cope

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The Independent Culture

For many years, Wendy Cope was practically the patron saint of single women. In Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, which turned her into that oxymoron, a bestselling poet, and its follow-up, Serious Concerns, she wrote with wry wit and sometimes heart-stopping honesty about failed love affairs, loneliness and disappointment. She wrote, of course, about a lot of other things, too, but for most readers it was the poems about "bloody men" being like "bloody buses", or about struggling to improve your looks, or books, or health, or life – in, for example, a poem she called, with supreme irony, "Some More Light Verse" – that hit a sometimes very painful nerve.

In If I Don't Know, published 15 years after Making Cocoa..., the mood changed. As precise and witty as ever, Cope continued to write brilliant parodies of other poets, and to cast her merciless eye over a world that, even when cruel, seemed ripe for satire. But she also wrote poems that strongly implied that she was – well, happy.

Although you shouldn't conflate the "I" of a poem with the poet, you'd have to be a determined deconstuctionist to ignore the fact that this was the first collection she wrote since finding love. If the defining mood before was along the lines of her poem "Advice to Young Women", that "Whatever you do, life is hell", now it was more like the "Fireworks Poem" she wrote for the Salisbury Festival: "Write it in fire across the night: / Some men are more or less all right".

A decade on, Family Values continues the mood of domestic contentment, but also, as late middle age gives way (at least in the poet's head) to early old age, looks back towards childhood and forwards towards death. Very touchingly, the poems, which are as tightly controlled and technically adept as ever, are infused with the gratitude that Cope still feels for the love she has found, and the "lovely life" it has given her.

They are also infused with compassion for those who lack the happiness that for so long eluded her. "A Christmas Song", which opens the collection, takes up the theme (and the title) of an earlier poem about how "unbelievably dreadful" Christmas is if you're single, and extends it to "everyone whose burden,/ Carried through the year," is heavier at "the season of good cheer". Some of the rawest poems (in emotional terms; Cope's writing is never technically anything other than highly accomplished) are about childhood, and in particular about a withholding mother Cope has clearly found hard to forgive.

Poems like "Sunday Morning" and "You're Not Allowed", which still quiver with the pain of a child's bewilderment about always being "in the wrong", show the howling inadequacy of the label that Cope attracted on first publication, and attracts still: "light verse".

Whatever else these poems are, they are not light. Like the poems of gratitude for "the years of warmth and love and Christmas trees", and those about seeing friends who live far away, perhaps for the last time, they are written with the deceptive simplicity of all Cope's work, but are also electric with emotion that ranges from anger and fear to sometimes wounded love.

In "Boarders", Cope says that she was teased at boarding school for using "too many long words". "I soon learned not to," she says. "Look at how I write." Yes, look at how she writes: in the plainest of plain language, in poems with fabulously complicated rhyme schemes (sonnets, villanelles, and even the odd pantoum) but which shine with the simplicity of a ballad, or a song. Many are about death and the fear of dying. Some brought tears to my eyes.

In "Spared", she imagines the pain of those in the "blazing tower" on that New York September day, and, echoing Emily Dickinson, writes of her hard-won understanding that "love is all, is all there is". It was Philip Larkin's message, too, of course: that "what will survive of us is love". At her best, Wendy Cope is as good as Larkin. Write it in fire across the night: Wendy Cope is much more than all right.

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