Wendy Cope: The unromantic poet of love
After some lean and lonely years, Wendy Cope is in love and enjoying life at last. Happiness writes white, the saying goes. So is her latest collection of poetry dull and monochrome?
Wendy Cope is a keen collector of the more wayward references to her talent, so when we meet in Faber & Faber's offices I offer a choice specimen I came across while browsing on the internet: "Wendy Cope bewilders Jordanians with her light verse." Was this entirely fair, I ask after all, the Jordanians have quite enough to fret about without the British Council adding poetic confusions to their life. She laughs and then, since the accompanying article offers not a clue as to the nature of the bewilderment, speculates that it could be a reference to a gender divide she noticed among her audiences there. Men, she recalls, couldn't quite understand why so much laughter was coming from beneath the veils of the women sitting next to them. She was, presumably, reading from her last book Serious Concerns in which the deep unhappiness of several failed love affairs found itself expressed in tart, bitterly funny poems about the emotional shortcomings of men.
She's done some bewildering in this country, too mostly among readers who find it hard to distinguish between irreverence and irrelevance. Why should we take her seriously, the argument ran, if she won't do it herself? Such critics rather missed the point that the wit was pointed enough to be just as painful as any amount of confessional solemnity. But the ingrained poetic prejudice against laughter combined with a certain amount of professional envy to make the aftermath of her second book a difficult time. "One of the reasons it's taken me so long to come up with another book is the battering I've taken from other poets," she says, explaining the nine-year gap between Serious Concerns and her latest book, If I Don't Know. "Of course, it makes you think, 'Well, perhaps I'm not any good' and, of course, that slows you down. There are plenty of poets who really like my work... there are... but, of course, I tend to focus on the others... though occasionally I can get into this mood of 'Sod them, they'll all hate this, but I'm going to write this anyway'."
The "Sod them" muse has produced a very different book this time, one that reflects the changed circumstances of her life since the writing of Serious Concerns. On paper, the success of her first book Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis should have ushered in a golden age the fulfilment of a childhood ambition to become a writer, the transition from south London primary school teacher to a household name at least in those households where they listen to Radio 4. In practice, it proved much harder: "I have to be careful about how I talk about this because obviously I was very lucky that Making Cocoa got so much attention and sold so well," she says warily. "If I start whinging about how it made my life very difficult... well. But what I hadn't bargained for was how isolated this would make me. I thought I would worry about money but it turned out that wasn't the worry. What I've earned is about the same as I would have earned as a teacher, so I've been lucky in that respect... but I missed people."
The loneliness of that period ended when she met the poet Lachlan Mackinnon, with whom she now lives in Winchester. He is the dedicatee of If I Don't Know and the man acknowledged by Cope as the reason for its tone of sometimes dreamy and delirious content. "Someone to stay home with was all my desire", she writes in the poem "Being Boring", "And now that I've found a safe mooring,/ I've just one ambition in life: I aspire/ To go on and on being boring." Despite the refrain of that poem, though, she is testy about the assumption expressed in more than one review of the new book that happiness necessarily dulls the poetic edge. She has just finished an anthology of 101 happy poems and takes issue in her introduction with the old truism that happiness writes white.
Moreover, she points out, there's plenty of evidence of the old Cope, alert to sentimental prejudices. When I remark on the vast difference between the Christmas poems in Serious Concerns (as unfestive in their spirit as you can imagine) and "The Christmas Life" in this one (a children's carol of utterly guileless enchantment) she draws my attention to the fact that it's immediately followed by a more sardonic account a poem called "30th December", which notes the frustrating way in which perfect days never quite match up with their calendar appointments.
In any case happiness is, for Cope, never quite the unblemished white that the saying casually assumes. She disagrees when I put it to her that her own happiness is an unusually melancholy brand preoccupied with potential loss and the fragility of the moment. That's standard operating procedure for poets, she suggests a thread that runs through the fabric of most English poetry and in any case, she doesn't think she's remarkable in feeling such anxieties.
"Let's put it this way", she says, vetting the line for public transmission. "If you were going to put that it's a sad kind of happiness you'd have to add 'in the sense that all happiness is sad'." But her willingness to admit impurities of emotion into her verse is one of the reasons her comedy is so telling. It's a matter of being true not just to the feelings you feel you should be feeling, but to those that you actually are.
She cites an example from the new book, a romantic poem called "Song" that didn't work at all in its first drafts: "Then I remembered that this unromantic thing happened and when I put the unromantic thing in the poem as well it worked much better. But it's still a love poem". It's also probably the only love poem in which the object of the poet's affections sits down on the poet's "saved-from-lunch" banana but the result is funny and moving, a proper account of how, in love, even the ridiculous becomes lovable.
The eight quatrains of "Song" follow what you might call an A-B-B-C rhyme scheme, in which A is open, B stands for "banana" and C for the word "crisps" those sturdily unpoetical words thus hogging 75 per cent of the line-endings. It's a good example of Cope's combination of poetic mischief with poetic rigour, which can also be seen in her love for classic verse forms. She uses villanelle, triolets and sonnets, she says, because she loves them herself as a reader, but I wonder whether they also offer a security blanket for a poet still surprisingly unsure of her claim to the title. "I think part of the reason they appeal to me is that there are rules to obey", she says, "and at least if you've got it technically right that's something."
She is a curious mixture of candour and reserve unselfconscious in talking about some details of her emotional life ("I did cry a lot when I first got to Winchester and I think that was partly that it was safe to let that sadness come out, partly realising what I'd missed all the years I was on my own") but cautious when the feelings of others might be involved and uncomfortable when I ask her whether she is now a believer (she attends cathedral services in Winchester regularly). If she was mocking of religious faith in earlier works she is not now, but she is clearly reluctant to stick a pre-printed label on this element of her life. After some thought she says this, slowly and precisely: "When Serious Concerns came out, if you'd asked me that question I would have said 'No, I'm an atheist'. That was it. And I certainly wouldn't say 'No, I'm an atheist' now."
There is no awkwardness when she talks about the future, though. "I don't know whether there'll be another book and it's OK if there isn't... I was saying to someone on the phone, 'The really important thing is that it sells well enough to keep me going until the pensions kick in', and she said, 'That's so wonderfully Larkinian you must say it in an interview'."
Well, now she has, though after three books she may deserve her own adjective. In its wry refusal to be pretentious about her success it was, I think, a characteristically Copian thing to say.
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